When Daniel Belouin was just a toddler, he began having trouble sleeping. Each night, he struggled to fall asleep and woke up every 30 to 60 minutes. When Daniel didn’t sleep, neither did his parents. His mother, Rachel, didn’t know what to think. Was it normal? Was something wrong?
Advice from family and friends — let him cry it out, feed him more, don’t let him nap in the afternoon — only compounded the problem. Rachel read about sleep issues and consulted Daniel’s doctor only to be told once again to, let him cry it out.
“We did whatever we could to help Daniel sleep — holding him, sleeping with him, whatever it took,” said Rachel. “I never thought he would sleep through the night again or that we’d have a normal family life.”
Pediatric sleep issues are common. The National Sleep Foundation reports that nearly 70 percent of all children experience weekly sleep problems. Increasingly, they are being recognized as serious health problems.
Effects of Sleep Deprivation
“Sleep impacts all areas of development,” said psychologist Lisa Meltzer, PhD. Meltzer, who specializes in treating and researching pediatric sleep issues, joined the National Jewish Health faculty in 2011. “Most parents realize that lack of sleep interferes with a child’s emotion regulation – hence the ‘meltdown,’ which can disrupt the entire family.”
“Lack of sleep also interferes with a child’s ability to pay attention in school, process and remember information. Growth hormones are released during sleep, so children getting inadequate sleep may also not grow normally. Immune function suffers in children not getting enough sleep. Sleep problems in kids become intertwined with the parents’ sleep habits and impact the entire family’s functioning.”
“With all that sleep deprivation, we were a mess, a wrecked family,” said Rachel. “I even quit my job teaching. It added volumes to the normal stress of family life.” Daniel’s doctors eventually discovered a physical source of Daniel’s sleeping problems – an iron deficiency, which can cause restless leg syndrome in children. But even after that had been solved, Daniel continued to have trouble sleeping. Would he ever sleep normally again? That’s when he was referred to Dr. Meltzer.
“The vast majority of sleep disturbances arise from behavioral issues – how you prepare to sleep, how you respond to waking up, and the sleeping environment all impact the quality and quantity of sleep a person gets,” said Dr. Meltzer. “I help parents understand how unhealthy sleep habits develop and how to retrain kids to have healthy sleep behaviors.”
The original efforts to help Daniel sleep had become the problem. As Daniel became accustomed to climbing into his parents’ bed, being rocked to sleep and attended to every time he woke up, he became unable to sleep without those interventions.
With Dr. Meltzer’s help, Rachel and her husband developed and maintained a relaxing bedtime routine in a comfortable sleep environment for Daniel. They gradually weaned themselves of the nightly visits to the parental bed, the rocking and the immediate attention whenever he woke up. After several months of gradual changes to Daniel’s sleep habits, the entire family is sleeping through the night and Rachel is teaching school once again.
“I felt as if sleep for Daniel was never going to happen,” said Rachel. “Now he is sleeping through the night, and my husband and I sleep normally too! We never could have returned to normal life without Dr. Meltzer.”
Infographic: Is Your Child Getting Enough Sleep?
Learn more about how you can support patients at National Jewish Health