Many Children Medicated for Sleep Problems

More children than previously thought have trouble sleeping, and a third of them are given medication for it.

More children than previously thought have trouble sleeping, and a third of them are given medication for it.

A recent survey uncovered that 70% of children who presented to a pediatric emergency department without pre-existing conditions had sleeping issues. Of those children, 27% had been given OTC sleep aids.

Study author Dirk Bock, MD, of Western University found the frequency and type of medication “troubling,” as common remedies included the hormone supplement melatonin, OTC pain medications, and antihistamines.

“Clearly, these are not usually meant to treat sleep problems in children,” he told Global News Canada.

The consensus among medication experts is that there appears to be no significant adverse effects in the short term for such medicating, but the absence of long-term studies on these effects leaves room for future problems to arise.

The more significant issue may be the potential for children to become psychologically dependent on sleep aids, W. Christopher Winter, MD, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia, told Pharmacy Times.

“The pharmacological repercussions, as far as we know, are pretty low, [but] it’s the psychological problem this is really significant,” he explained. “Kids may grow up thinking they just have a problem and that they need medication forever.”

In 90% of cases, Dr. Winter estimates, parents request sleep medication not because they believe that their child actually has a problem, but because their lives are affected by their children staying awake at night.

“Parenting plays a major role in a child’s sleep cycle. A child may not be sleeping the way a parent wants them to, but it’s really up to them to create structure and build a sleeping rhythm for them,” he said.

Dr. Winter attributes the high number of children receiving medication to hesitancy among prescribers to interfere with parenting.

Nevertheless, health care professionals should counsel parents about how to properly address their child’s sleeping problem and rule out the possibility that it may just be a behavioral issue, rather than a neurological one.

“Insomnia is not a disease, it’s a symptom,” Dr. Winter noted. “Parents and health care professionals have a responsibility to determine what the real issue is and address it in the appropriate way.”

The survey findings were recently presented to the Canadian Pediatric Society.