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Medicating Children for Sleep Problems

Lots of kids are being prescribed medication for sleep problems, even though they’re not approved for use under the age of 18, says a new study in the journal Sleep Medicine.

Researchers, including Dr. Judith Owens of Brown Medical School, collected surveys from 1,300 child and adolescent psychiatrists to find out how commonly their patients report insomnia and what they do to help little ones get more rest.

Ninety six percent of the doctors said that they had recommended a sleep medication in the last month, and overall they prescribed them to a quarter of their patients. Is a prescription necessary or safe for kids who can’t sleep?

It comes as no surprise that young patients in the study struggle with insomnia – difficulty falling asleep and night wakings come hand-in-hand with many childhood psychiatric conditions, like ADHD, autism, mood and anxiety disorders.

Studies show behavioral treatments (like relaxation training) also work, so part of the question is do doctors jump to medication before families have had a chance to try other methods?  Then again, some kids under psychiatric care loose sleep because of the medications they’re already taking — sleep aids counteract the side effects of their primary drug.

I was surprised at how many different drugs the physicians in the study reported using to help children sleep: antihistamines, antidepressants, antipsychotics were among them. No drug has been FDA approved as a childhood sleep aid, so the doctors are extrapolating from what they know to be safe and helpful for adults.

Sleep problems start young (20 percent of preschoolers had insomnia) but they just get worse as kids grow. For me, another study that confirms how wide spread sleep deprivation is.

Image: woodleywonderworks/Flickr

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