In her recurring column, author and sleep research guru Malia Jacobson answers reader questions about that most important of parenting tools: a good night's sleep. In this edition, Restless Legs Syndrome and picking the perfect bedtime.
My 8-year-old son gets painful leg cramps every night. Any advice?
Nighttime leg cramps are a pain. When so-called “growing pains” happen most nights, they might be a sign of pediatric Restless Legs Syndrome, the kids’ version of the grown-up sleep disorder known for keeping adults awake at night with creepy-crawly sensations in the limbs.
Pediatric RLS affects kids as young as six months old through the teenage years with unpleasant, tingly, crampy sensations in the limbs that worsen at night. Family history is a significant factor in RLS, so if parents experienced “growing pains” or have RLS, kids are more likely to follow suit. Nighttime leg pain is closely linked to levels of certain nutrients, most importantly iron and magnesium.
Need more sleep?
Read more from the author Malia Jacobson in her book "Ready, Set, Sleep" — now available on Amazon.
In one study, 83 percent of children with RLS had low iron levels. If RLS is suspected, your pediatrician may order a test to evaluate ferritin (stored iron). Other ways to prevent and soothe nighttime leg pain include guarding against over-tiredness with an age-appropriate bedtime, since overly tired kids are more likely to experience leg pain at night.
Encourage moderate physical activity during the day but keep evenings restful; too much physical activity late in the day can aggravate cramps. A warm bath or massage before bed can help keep cramps at bay, too.
Instead of winding down at night, my kids get more wound up. How can we help them relax before bed?
When kids get hyped before bedtime, it may appear that they’re not tired. In fact, the opposite is true: wild antics right before bed are a signal that bedtime is too late. When kids are up for too long, they fight sleep with extra adrenaline (most parents recognize that familiar “second wind” that kids seem to get right before bedtime).
The best bedtime? One that occurs before the hyper-silly behavior kicks in.
Finding the right time for your kids can be tough. Toddlers and preschoolers need 11-13 hours of sleep per night; school age kids need 10-11, and teens need 8-9. Take your children’s morning wakeup time into consideration, and choose a time for lights out that allows them to get the rest they need. (Ask older kids to help choose their own bedtime.)
To help kids wind down for bed, power down electronics about an hour before bed and dim the house lights to signal that it’s time to slow down for sleep. Spending time reading, playing with quiet toys, or talking together about the day will help kids transition into sleep without the extra layover in Crazy Town.