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Ask the Experts

What is Causing a Change in My Child's Sleep Pattern and Behavior?

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

My first-grader got off to a great start this year and seems really "in sync" with her teacher. However, over the past week I've noticed a change in her sleeping pattern. She has been waking up within an hour of going to bed and then seeks out her dad and me.

Then, last Friday, we got a call from the school health office that she came in and told the nurse she wasn't feeling well and felt nauseas. My husband left work early to pick her up. However, once she was home, she had no sign of illness and was very happy and interactive through the dinner hour and into the evening.

A week later we got another call from the nurse that our daughter had a stomach ache and wanted to go home. She told the school staff that I was at home (which was not the case) and that she wanted me to pick her up. I spoke with the Dean of Students who reports that our daughter just seems to want to go home.

We cannot pinpoint any cause for this behavior change. Any ideas of what could be causing these sudden changes in her sleep pattern and her behavior at school?

Answer:

There may be two different issues here. Some researchers now wonder if symptoms of anxiety and depression, in both children and adults, are in some cases caused by a sleep disorder.

Sleep specialists look at bedtime routines. Has your daughter's routine changed? Has your family's dinner time or bedtime schedule changed? Is her bedtime consistent? Is she still using comfort measures, such as a stuffed toy or night light?

It's important to develop consistent bedtime routines and make sure she goes back to her own bed upon waking. Being allowed to "hang out" with you when she gets out of bed would reinforce her behavior.

You may want to ask your pediatrician to evaluate your daughter for any medical causes of sleep disturbance.

If children refuse to go to school or develop physical symptoms (most frequent are stomach and headaches) after being at school, it is often thought to indicate separation anxiety. The most common ages for this are 5-7 and again at 11-14. These are times when adapting to school pressures can be difficult for some children. These separations are not so much about being at school, but about being away from the safety of parents and the home environment. Talking to you child may shine some light on the subject.

Although you can't pinpoint anything, the most common triggers are:

  • Getting accustomed to uninterrupted time with a parent at home after being sick or on vacation.
  • The deaths of family members or pets.
  • Moving or a changes in parents' schedules or routines.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.


Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

06/27/2011:
"I have a 19 year old who has been diagnosed with Aurism at early age. I am a sigle mom with a demanding job. Past few months my son who has a lots of anxiwety and always prefer to spend time with me, picked up the habit os staying up very late way past midnight and sometimes up to 3 to 4 a.m. It is vey challenging and a hard work to say the least to wake him up in the morning, worst is since he also sneaks into my bedroom past midnight when I am sleep and wakes me up just to talk to me. I just can't get through him that he is interupting a very little sleep time and when I make comment about it he gets sad, loud and complains that he needs to talk to me at night time when I am sleep and that he is affraid. The situjation is getting out of control since he is doing it every night and it is affecting my health and the fact that I am sleepy during the day due to lack of sleep. Please help. Is ther a sleep discorder specialist that they can gelp him in getting him back in! to rormal sleep pattern."
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