Good sleep is a challenge for parents globally. Did you know up to 40% of kids have sleep problems? And did you know these sleep problems interfere with a child’s physical, mental, emotional, and social development… with ramifications that can be seen throughout their childhood and adolescence?
Who am I?
My name is Sharon Moore and I’m a speech pathologist in Australia (known as a speech-language pathologist in the USA, and speech therapist in the UK). I’m the founder of Well Spoken, a speech pathology practice that helps children with communication problems like voice and articulation.
Over the last decade, I became aware of research in the emerging field of sleep medicine that changed my personal and professional world. That’s why I wrote the book, “Sleep-Wrecked Kids: Helping Parents Raise Happy, Healthy Kids One Sleep at a Time”.
As a mother, I know there is nothing like lack of sleep or interrupted sleep to bring out the worst in children (and their parents). And, in my work with medical and dental specialists, I have seen first-hand how sleep problems interfere with kids’ growth, health, and family happiness.
You may be wondering how sleep relates to a speech pathologist’s core work of diagnosing and solving communication problems. Surprisingly, a lot. In fact, they fit together very neatly in two main ways.
Firstly, sleep problems, no matter the type or severity, interfere with a child’s ability to think, behave, regulate their emotions, as well as develop and use communication skills.
Secondly, when looking closely at the developing facial bones and muscle systems of the mouth, face, and throat (the upper airway) – which are key to speech, eating, breathing, hearing, and voice – it turns out that this system also supports healthy breathing during sleep. So, as health practitioners, we need to consider “what goes on in the night” just as seriously as “what goes on in the day” when it comes to upper airway health and function.
As a speech pathologist, I started to wonder how on earth I could help children with their upper airway and communication problems without also addressing their sleep problems, which were undermining everything we did in therapy. I realised that resolving this issue was going to be critical to the success of the kids and families asking me for help, and it needed a team approach.
Not only that, I came to realise that global collaboration between families, as well as health, education, and childcare professionals would be needed to truly change myths and misperceptions about sleep.
What’s the problem?
The World Health Organisation has named poor sleep an epidemic because up to 40% of children have sleep problems, and most of them go undetected. These sleep problems undermine every domain of a child’s development: physical, mental, emotional, and social.
While there are 100+ possible sleep disorders, one of the most common relates to breathing and the upper airway: sleep-disordered breathing.
Sleep-disordered breathing deserves its very own blog, but in a nutshell, it ranges from severe to mild (e.g. obstructive sleep apnoea where the airway collapses and interrupts breathing for up to 10 seconds, multiple times an hour).
At the recent Australian Government Hearing into Sleep Health Awareness, Dr Rosemary Horne from Monash University in Melbourne reported that 35% of children snore. Snoring is one of those symptoms that is frequently dismissed as a mild form of sleep-disordered breathing like upper airway resistance syndrome (resulting from varying degrees of collapse in the upper airway during sleep) and dysfunctional breathing like mouth breathing.
Yet, the behavioural and learning consequences of the so-called mild forms of sleep-disordered breathing can be as bad as that of obstructive sleep apnoea. In my clinical experience, many kids who snore or have mild sleep apnoea are not treated, and left with a wait-and-see approach to management. We are so proud to announce that the Australian government has been pro-active about sleep health for Australians and released a documenton April 5th 2019 with 11 recommendations to improve sleep health nationally. Many studies show undetected sleep problems like sleep-disordered breathing interfere with a child’s brain and physical development. Untreated sleep problems may be irreversible. No matter how mild, these shape each developmental turn throughout childhood, compounding over time. Unhalted, they also shape each developmental turn into adolescence and then adulthood. Sleep problems don’t resolve unless we take deliberate action, as early as possible. For further discussion of mouth and airway development please see Bahr & Gatto, 2017.
What are the main challenges facing parents?
There are millions of children globally who have sleep problems, and most of them are missed, dismissed or misdiagnosed. This leaves parents with three key challenges:
Many parents think poor sleep is normal. Even if parents notice symptoms like noisy breathing, snoring, and night waking, they may think they are normal because no one told them they are not. In fact, they are frequently told these symptoms are normal. We need to help dispel myths about sleep.
Parents may recognise a problem, but they are busy, stressed, and probably sleep deprived themselves. This leaves them looking for the quick fix like, “I can stop snoring by propping a bigger pillow under my child’s head,” or playing musical beds in the middle of the night to settle the child. Parents may even think, “I can train my children to need less sleep.” We need to help parents with effective solutions.
Parents looking for expert advice have trouble finding the right advice. Sleep medicine is a specialised area, and many doctors simply do not know how to resolve sleep issues.
In fact, one of my patients had visited more than 23 top medical specialists in Australia and the USA. It was not until a dentist recognised an airway problem at a routine check-up that the problems started to resolve. We need to help parents find the right help when they need it.
Fortunately, there are simple ways to start addressing these problems:
- Learn the good sleep formula
- Understand the red flags of sleep problems and the consequences of doing nothing.
What to do and who do I see for help?
I’m going to sign off by saying it’s been great talking with you. May you and all your loved ones have sweet dreams every night. At Well Spoken, we say, “Every child and family have the right to get the sleep they need every single night to be healthy and happy.”