Understanding Pediatric Circadian Rhythm Disorder

By Alejandra Zamora

One of the most unfading — and perhaps haunting — memories of parenthood are the restless, sleepless nights tending to your infant’s every need. From late-night diaper changes to midnight milk cravings, it’s a hump seemingly every parent must get through as your child enters toddlerhood. This is another phase that’s still undoubtedly characterized by lots of energy and activity, but with a more consistent, reliable sleep schedule.

There will be days of extreme exhaustion, sickness, travel and more that could affect your little one’s sleep schedule throughout their life, but, for the most part, it should be fully set and developed by early adolescence. But what happens when sleep issues persist, like prolonged daytime sleepiness or difficulty staying asleep? It could mean your child is experiencing Pediatric Circadian Rhythm Disorder, or a disruption of their body’s natural sleep cycle.

What is Pediatric Circadian Rhythm Disorder?

Put simply, a circadian rhythm disorder is exhibited in a child when their sleep-wake cycle becomes out of sync. Essentially referring to the body’s internal “clock,” a person’s circadian rhythm is typically established between three and six months of age but can fluctuate with hormonal changes between ages 10 and 19, according to the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.

What are Signs my Child Might be Experiencing a Circadian Rhythm Disorder?

First and foremost, a child with this disorder must be experiencing a prolonged disturbance to their sleep pattern that, as a result, disrupts their daily lifestyle.

Here are some symptoms that Riley Children’s Health at Indiana University says may be signs of a circadian rhythm disorder:

  • Falling asleep during the day; excessive sleepiness
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Lack of focus or concentration during the day, especially at school
  • Lack of true rest when sleep is achieved

What causes Pediatric Circadian Rhythm Disorder?

No single person’s circadian rhythm is the same, but generally speaking, most experts, like those at Cleveland Clinic and the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, agree that factors such as jet lag, changes to a child’s normal day-to-day routine and certain medications can cause disruptions to the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Other causes may include intellectual disabilities, stress and lack of sunlight for long periods.

How to Treat Pediatric Circadian Rhythm Disorder?

Luckily for parents, many behavioral, natural and medicinal treatments have proven to be beneficial for children struggling with this and other variations of circadian rhythm disorders. The sleep experts at Riley Children’s Health at Indiana University recommend the following treatments for your child:

A set sleep schedule: Getting your child to wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day can help with resetting their circadian rhythms.

Light therapy: Whether natural or artificial, proper light exposure is essential to realign the sleep-wake cycle. Ideally, aim to get your child outside in the natural sunlight within the first hour of waking up.

Chronotherapy: A more gentle and gradual behavioral treatment, chronotherapy involves shifting your child’s bedtime a small amount each day until the desired time is achieved, allowing your child to slowly get used to the change.

Medication: Melatonin is a great natural supplement option to aid in your child’s sleep, but other over-the-counter and prescribed alternatives exist as well.

Like most behavioral treatments, lots of time and dedication are required to make a difference in something as delicate as the sleep cycle, but recovery is possible. Speak with a sleep medicine specialist to discuss more tailored treatment options for Pediatric Circadian Rhythm Disorder, as well as more

*Always discuss sleep conners with your pediatrician information on causes, symptoms, long-term effects and more.

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