Children's Sleep Problems May Be Tied to Headaches, Stomach Pain

Research shows a link, though it can't prove the medical issues cause sleep troubles.

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Children's sleep problems are a huge headache for families; now it looks as if the sleep problems themselves could be linked to headaches.

Children who have trouble falling asleep or wake up often at night are much more likely to have headaches or to regurgitate food, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Headaches were twice as likely to occur in children with sleep problems; 24 percent of those kids reported pain, compared with 13 percent of children without disturbed sleep. And 19 percent of children with insomnia had problems with regurgitation, compared with 7.5 percent of children without sleep problems.

The good news is that treating the medical condition that causes the headaches or stomach problems may well improve children's sleep. This study, conducted by researchers at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pa., examined 700 children ages 5 to 12 years and included a physical, an overnight sleep study, and neuropsychological testing. Apnea, bed-wetting, and psychiatric and behavioral disorders were also examined as possible causes of sleep problems, but a significant connection was found only to gastrointestinal regurgitation and headaches .

The big caveat is that it's impossible to tell from this study if the sleep problems are causing the headaches and stomach problems, or vice versa. But Ravi Singareddy, an assistant professor of psychiatry who led the study, says parents should get the medical complaints treated first. Only if the sleep problems don't improve when the medical problem diminishes should the sleep disturbance be assessed and treated.

If your child still needs help with sleep problems, behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, offer significantly better treatment than sleeping pills, according to a 2006 analysis by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.