Typical practice in conventional medicine appears to be treating insomnia in children with over-the-counter and prescription medicine. The practice is especially apparent in children with special needs and co-morbid psychiatric disorders.
According to All Voices:
"Almost 13,000 members of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry completed a survey ... In a staggering response 96 percent of practitioners had recommended a minimum of one prescription medication [for insomnia in a child] in a normal month, while 86 percent recommended over-the-counter medicines. Antidepressants, antihistamines, stimulants and more were prescribed."
At least one-quarter of kids seeing a psychiatrist are being prescribed drugs to treat insomnia -- including antidepressants, anti-psychotics, anti-convulsants, short-acting hypnotics and other drugs with potentially serious side effects.
Almost every child and adolescent psychiatrist surveyed (96 percent) had recommended a prescription medication in a typical month, while 88 percent recommended an over-the-counter medication.
Drugs are Handed Out Like Candy for Kids' Sleep Troubles
It's estimated that 20 to 30 percent of babies and toddlers, and 5 percent of school-age children, have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, and this number rises among children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression and other psychiatric conditions.
So a significant number of kids seeing psychiatrists are at risk of being prescribed drugs to help them sleep, but this is true even of kids seeing typical pediatricians. A separate survey found that more than 75 percent of surveyed U.S. pediatricians have recommended over-the-counter sleep aids to children, and more than 50 percent had prescribed a sleep aid to some of their young patients.
One study even found that 81 percent of children's doctor visits for sleep problems included a prescription for a medication! Most prescribed for kids' sleep troubles were antihistamines, blood pressure drugs, benzodiazepines such as the sleeping pill Restoril, antidepressants, and sleeping pills like Ambien and Sonata.
You certainly do not need to go to medical school to understand that using drugs to help kids sleep is not their best option, as it in no way, shape or form addresses the underlying cause of the insomnia and instead exposes kids to potentially serious medication side effects.
Kids with ADHD, depression, anxiety or mood disorders are already prescribed a dizzying array of powerful psychotropic medications -- and these drugs are known to interfere with sleep. So these children are then often given even more drugs, such as Clonidine, Trazodone, Abilify, Neurontin or Ambien, to treat their drug-induced insomnia.
It's an incredibly vicious, and dangerous, cycle.
Dangers of Sleeping Pills … and do They Even Work?
Giving sleeping pills to kids is a double-edged sword, one that brings with it serious risks and lack of evidence of effectiveness.
For starters, sleeping pills are notorious for being addictive, which means that once you want to stop taking them, you'll likely suffer withdrawal symptoms that could be worse than the initial insomnia. Some, such as Ambien, may also become less effective when taken for longer than two weeks.
Ambien may also make you want to eat while you're asleep -- and the sleep eating can include bizarre foods such as buttered cigarettes, salt sandwiches, and raw bacon.
Antidepressants, which are often used for sleep aids for kids, have been shown to CAUSE both suicidal and homicidal thoughts and behaviors. For example, seven recent school shootings were done by children who were either on antidepressants or going through withdrawal.
Even over-the-counter sleep aids can cause serious side effects, including liver failure from those that contain acetaminophen (Tylenol). They are also questionable at best when it comes to effectiveness.
In one study that evaluated the effectiveness of over-the-counter sleep aids such as Tylenol PM and Excedrin PM, the drugs were found to work only slightly better than a placebo -- a finding the FDA has ruled insufficient.
Another analysis of sleeping pill studies financed by the National Institutes of Health found that sleeping pills like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata reduced the average time to go to sleep by just under 13 minutes compared with fake pills -- hardly a major improvement.
Yet, the participants believed they had slept longer, by up to one hour, when taking the pills. This may actually be a sign of a condition called anterograde amnesia, which causes trouble with forming memories. When people wake up after taking sleeping pills, they may, in fact, simply forget that they had been unable to sleep!
What Can You do if Your Child Can't Sleep?
Sleeping pills and other medications do nothing to help the underlying reasons why your child is having trouble sleeping in the first place. This is likely why studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can treat insomnia better than drugs.
So if your child is having trouble sleeping, first try to identify what might be the source of the problem. Common culprits include:
- Diet: Is your child eating large amounts of sugar or grains, or consuming sugary or caffeine-laden beverages like soda or fruit juice? Diet sodas are not any better. Cut these out first and your child will probably sleep better right away.
- TV, Video Games and Other Distractions: Many kids stay up late watching TV, surfing the Web or playing video games, then have trouble falling asleep. Turning off the TV at a set time, or removing the TV and computer from your child's bedroom, should be another first on your list if you want to ensure a good night's sleep.
- Stress: As with adults, stress can keep kids up at night. Is your child worrying about an upcoming test at school or having trouble with friends? Make sure you help them to relieve their worries so they can sleep (the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which I often recommend for stress relief for adults, can be used for kids, too).
- Exercise: If your child is sedentary, it could be impacting their sleep. On the other hand, exercising -- or playing tag outdoors, riding bikes, etc. -- for at least 30 minutes everyday can help your child fall asleep. Exercise can also help your child release underlying anxieties that might impair sleep as well.
I also suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night's Sleep for 33 simple tips on improving your sleep and that of your children. Whether you are not able to fall asleep, wake up too often, or don't feel well rested when you wake up in the morning, these guidelines will provide you with various useful techniques to improve these problems. Some of my recommendations include:
- Avoid bedtime snacks, particularly grains and sugars, which will raise your blood sugar and inhibit your sleep.
- Sleep in complete darkness or as close to it as possible. If there is even the tiniest bit of light in the room (including nightlights), it can disrupt your circadian rhythm and your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. Additionally, if you have to go to the bathroom at night, keep the bathroom light off. As soon as you turn on that light, you will (for that night) immediately cease all production of the important sleep aid melatonin.
- Keep the temperature in the bedroom no higher than 70 degrees F. Many people keep their homes and particularly the upstairs bedrooms too hot.