My 4-year-old son, Pete, came into my room and said something about breakfast. "I'm up; I'm up," I said, wondering why my alarm hadn't gone off. I headed toward the kitchen and noticed I was having trouble walking in a straight line. That's when I saw the clock: It was 3:45 A.M.
I coaxed him back to bed, only to wake up two hours later to the sound of him playing with every car and truck in his toy box. At naptime, I thought he would fall asleep in a snap. No such luck. He tossed and turned, played with his cars, put on his Superman costume and jumped off his bed, until I finally -- an hour and a half later -- gave up on a nap.
Having endured bouts of insomnia myself during stressful times, I had to wonder if Pete was experiencing something similar. We'd recently moved cross-country, which meant he was getting used to a new house, a new climate, a new preschool, new friends, new everything. But was it possible for a 4-year-old to have insomnia? The thought struck me as silly.
It turns out that it's not silly at all. In fact, there are more than 40 accredited pediatric sleep centers around the country established to help the estimated 20 to 30 percent of children older than 6 months who suffer from insomnia or other significant sleep problems. The experts working in these facilities would certainly agree that there are children who suffer from insomnia. However, they don't always agree on what qualifies for the diagnosis.
Most people think of insomnia as night after night of sleeplessness, followed by a string of bleary-eyed days. But insomnia simply means sleeplessness -- even for just one night. All children, at some point, will have trouble sleeping, whether it's because they watched a scary show earlier in the day, haven't established a regular bedtime routine, or are simply excited about the next day's events. Of course, one or two bad nights wouldn't merit a trip to a sleep center.
Some experts consider a sleep difficulty to be significant when it takes someone more than 30 minutes to fall asleep on three nights a week for at least three months. But most pediatric sleep experts use looser criteria for diagnosing insomnia in kids, focusing mostly on whether the sleep issues cause problems during waking hours for either the child or his parents. The more nights of disrupted sleep that a child experiences, the more likely he'll be to develop a habit of enduring sleeplessness, explains Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Your child isn't likely to outgrow a bout of sleeplessness that lasts more than three or four weeks, she says. That's because every time he goes to sleep, he's developing his sleep behavior. The longer he has difficulty falling asleep, the higher the likelihood that he is unwittingly teaching himself not to sleep. But, she adds, "You can always solve a sleep problem. It's never too late."