Sleep disorders are common in children and teens and can have a long-term effect on their overall well-being, said Chellie Smith, director of sleep services at Mercy Fort Smith. But there are signs parents can watch for and things they can do to help their child.
Mercy Fort Smith’s Sleep Center, 5401 Ellsworth Road, as well as the sleep centers in Booneville and Ozark, help patients by diagnosing disorders such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, idiopathic hypersomnolence, insomnia, restless leg syndrome and more. This includes children and teens.
Staff members at Mercy Fort Smith’s Sleep Centers have a combined almost 200 years of experience in the field of sleep disorders, not including the doctor and APRN.
“We’ve all been doing this a long time and we are invested and committed to providing exceptional care to the customers we are blessed to work with,” Smith said.
Knowing the Signs
Smith says there are things parents should watch for in their children that could indicate a sleep disorder. Some indicators include breathing with his or her mouth open or dark circles around the eyes as well as waking up hoarse or coughing and choking at night. And a child should never snore, Smith said.
What might appear to be a sleep disorder could be something else, such as low iron levels or other issues with vitamins. Smith also suggests making sure the child is drinking enough water. Sodas and sugary drinks – especially those with caffeine – can make it difficult for a child to get a good night’s sleep, especially if the child drinks one with an evening meal or later.
Difficulty waking a child in the morning could also indicate there’s a problem.
“If you’re having repeatedly ‘not normal’ issues … if they’re sleeping through loud alarms, or if you’re having to go in the child’s bedroom multiple times, almost to the point that you feel like you’re scolding them to get up, I would check into it,” Smith said.
Technology is a major problem when it comes to kids and sleep, Smith says. Teens especially have a difficult time putting away the phones, ipads and other devices at night. Lights from the devices stimulate the brain and impact the ability to sleep.
“While they’re in high school and under your roof, people don’t realize that once you go to bed, kids stay up later,” Smith said. “Their phones go off all night, and that fragments their sleep. They wake up and they want to see their phone, and that light stimulates their brain again, which stimulates the brain to stay awake. It fragments their sleep and keeps them awake. That’s the biggest problem right now I believe (with teens and sleep). Parents have the right to take up phones and devices during bedtime. I fear parents worry about upsetting their children by taking up the devices, but sleep is imperative to the health of each child. In my opinion, this needs to be a priority.”
Smith suggests parents implement rules regarding devices, where they’re shut off after a certain time each night and possibly later on the weekend.
Sleep hygiene – going to bed and getting up at the same time every day – is an important part of overall well-being at any age, Smith said.
“People think that they can sleep in on the weekend and catch up, but you can’t,” Smith said.
Transitioning from High School to College
Teens who have a difficult time with sleep while they’re in high school will face the same issue when they go to college, only they won’t have an adult around to help.
“I would encourage people to understand when kids go to college, if they’re starting to have problems, if they’re sleeping through their alarms, if they’re not able to get up and go to class on their own and get their work done, having trouble concentrating and staying focused, I would recommend talking to a doctor about possible sleep testing,” Smith said. “What we see happening is, you’ve got that parent there (in high school) saying, ‘get up, get up, get up …’ so then they go on to college and then, next thing you know, first semester, they’re not doing well in school, or having a lot of trouble at school. They’re missing classes, so they’re having to drop classes.”
Poor grades and missed classes for a student may be the first heads up a parent gets regarding any health issues their child may be having, including a sleep disorder.
Drinking alcohol can make sleep disorders worse and can lead to other health issues as well, Smith said, which is especially concerning for new high school graduates who may be exposed to alcohol for the first time when they go off to college. Many parents become more aware of possible sleep disorders during that first year of college when things don’t go well for the student, she added.
“Parents are asking, ‘What’s going on?’ And they’re staying up, they’re doing some partying, almost all of them,” Smith said. “The kids that you don’t think would, do. Then, the parents are mad, the kid is in trouble. It affects their self-esteem. People don’t like talking about this subject as they don’t want to go against the norms in society.
“Everyone wants to fit in and not seem different, but I encourage a different means of thinking and teaching. You don’t have to drink to be popular. Most young adults have great respect for their peers who choose not to drink in college.”
Smith said that usually during the first year of college by a student’s first spring break, ‘We’ve got an influx of kids that are needing to be tested at the sleep center. If they don’t have sleep apnea, then a lot of them have narcolepsy, idiopathic hypersomnolence (sleepiness of unknown origin), which affects you like narcolepsy.”
The first step is visiting with a family doctor, who may refer the patient to the sleep center. A primary care physician may recommend a nighttime sleep study for patients of any age who have trouble falling or staying asleep, who snore, pause in breathing or gasp at night, experience daytime sleepiness or have other sleep disruptions. After it’s determined a sleep study is needed, a technologist walks patients through an in-depth, one-on-one discussion before they’re wired with sensors. The technologist closely monitors patients while they are sleeping. Testing and treatment are determined by a board-certified sleep specialist.
All of the technicians are kind to patients and work hard to make them comfortable during the test, Smith said.
“If you’re coming in for testing, you’re already tired anyway,” she said. “A lot of our patients, the ones who say they’re not going to sleep … while they’re hooking them up, they’re already going to sleep in the chair.” Patients can use sleep aids as needed during the tests that are approved prior to arrival.
Recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control indicate a rise in mental health issues in children, including a 43% increase in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and a 37% increase in adolescent depression. A proper diagnosis of a sleep disorder may be one key to helping a child overcome these types of issues, Smith said.
The most important part of the process is for a parent to be aware and concerned when there are signs of issues with a child of any age. There may be something clinically wrong, and parents should take the time to help their child find a proper diagnosis, Smith added.
“If you don’t have parents who are concerned and want to ask questions, not just assuming their kid is lazy … because kids will get labeled that way … that affects their self-esteem, and they get depressed and, sadly, kids turn more to alcohol, more to drugs, because they don’t understand why everybody else is able to (succeed at school) but they can’t,” Smith said.
For more information about Mercy Fort Smith sleep services, visit www.mercy.net/practice/mercy-sleep-center-fort-smith/. Mercy Hospital Ozark Sleep Center is at 801 River St. in Ozark, and Mercy Sleep Center – Booneville is at 880 W. Main St.