Too much sugar a factor in child sleep disorders, doctors say

Parents warned to look out for the signs of a sleep disorder, which can have wide-ranging implications on a child's health.

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ABU DHABI // Eating and drinking too much sugar plays a huge part in causing sleep disorders for children as young as 3.

Parents are often unaware of signs, but about three out of 10 children in the region suffer from sleep-related disorders, among them sleep apnoea, where breathing repeatedly stops during sleep, robbing the brain of oxygen.

Dr Karina Patel, a consultant in dental sleep medicine at London Sleep Centre in Dubai, said that there had been more than 20 children seeking help for sleep disorders since the centre opened six months ago.

“Children are having a lot more sugar now because it’s readily available,” Dr Patel said. A child doesn’t have to be obese to have a sleep disorder.

“If there is sugar in their diet in any form, this will cause inflammation and the first point of inflammation is in the nose. This makes breathing very difficult.”

Obstructive sleep apnoea is the most common form of the disorder and causes the throat or upper airway to collapse, preventing oxygen from getting to the lungs, resulting in shallow breathing or breathing pauses.

It can happen at any age but is most common in children aged between 3 and 7.

Reduced oxygen flow to the brain disrupts restorative sleep, which is critical for every child’s brain development.

This disruption creates problems in areas of the brain that control children’s behaviour, emotions and ability to be attentive, often resulting in increased hyperactivity.

Signs for parents to look out for include snoring, sleeping with the mouth open, saliva on the pillow in the morning and dark circles around the eyes, Dr Patel said.

Children become irritable, emotional and can act uncharacteristically.

Sufferers tend to move their jaw a lot and grind their teeth when sleeping, which wears down the teeth, even at a young age.

A study published in Middle East Current Psychiatry in 2014 showed that 33.6 per cent of 146 children between the ages of 4 and 12 were found to have a sleep-related disorder.

Other factors that affect children’s sleep include computer use, TV watching, eating large amounts just before bed and caffeine, said Dr Anita Das Gupta, chief clinical dietician at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi.

For every 10 obese children, two-thirds suffer from sleep apnoea, she said.

“We do get children who are obese and many of these suffer from sleep apnoea,” Dr Das Gupta said.

Sufferers are drowsy in the morning, fall asleep anywhere, at any time, and have problems concentrating.

“It’s difficult to diagnose, as children don’t like waking up early and this is typical behaviour for them,” she said.

Sasha Yaz, a behaviour analyst at Camali Clinic in Dubai, said that sleep problems in childhood can be associated with obesity, behavioural problems or emotional problems.

“If we see a patient who has a behavioural problem and we come to know that their sleep pattern is disturbed, my recommendation is to work on their sleep alongside their behaviour,” Ms Yaz said.

“When people sleep more, they are able to cope with challenges better.”

She said that an increase in challenging behaviour could also be a sign that a child was struggling with a sleep problem.

Sleeping routines and knowing how much sleep a child needs is important because this will show how much they are missing out on, Ms Yaz said.

The doctors said parents should look out for symptoms such as jaw pain, headaches or even difficulty in normal mouth functions.