Alberta researchers are compiling data to help provide insight into why children often have difficulty sleeping while overcoming illness and to develop treatment options for them and their families.

Children with cancer often have trouble falling and staying asleep and those difficulties can stick with them into adulthood.

“Cancer survivors have long-standing issues with their sleep. We think that that probably starts at the point of when they’re diagnosed and some patterns that develop with the patients and the families during the treatment process. There may also be some effects of the treatment itself that contributes to poor sleep but those patterns develop and then persist long-term,” said Dr. Fiona Schulte, Psychologist Alberta Children’s Hospital.

Researchers with Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary say when sleep patterns are disrupted it can have a serious impact on health and quality of life.

“Sleeping well is critical for children’s cognitive, physical and social development,” said Dr. Lianne Tomfohr-Madsen, PhD, assistant professor with the University of Calgary’s Department of Psychology.

Reasons why children’s sleep patterns are often disrupted while they’re in hospital:

  • The effects of the illness or treatment might make sleep difficult
  • Health care providers sometimes need to wake children to monitor their condition
  • With little else to do, kids might increase the amount of time they’re watching TV or using handheld electronic devices, which can negatively affect sleep
  • Co-sleeping with a parent might be a short-term solution that facilitates sleep but can present challenges when families return home.

Doctors say stress can also be a significant barrier to a fitful sleep and that families often have fears about monitoring the child once they return home from hospital.

“That anxiety turns bedtime into a challenge and may lead to a cycle of waking up in the middle of the night. The rhythms of the whole family can be disrupted,” said Dr. Schulte.

Traci Rhyason’s nine-year-old son Leland was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just three years old and he is now working with the experts at ACH to help him fall asleep.

“Leland’s sleep was affected drastically through treatments. In hospital stays, quite often, I would sleep in the bed with him and the nurses would come in to wake him up to check vitals and all that stuff so it’s quite interrupted when you’re here,” said Rhyason. “Leland has been an awful sleeper. I honestly don’t know if he’s had a full night sleep, probably in six years, seven years.”   

“If I don’t have a good sleep, I’ll be up for a couple of hours but I don’t feel very good and I know I’ll feel really tired the next morning,” said Leland.

Researchers are looking for study participants between the ages of 8 and 18 who have had leukemia.

They are also looking for healthy children for a comparison group and hope to enroll 100 families in the project, 50 for each group.

Children in the study will be asked to fill out questionnaires, keep a sleep diary and wear a monitor at night for a week to measure sleep quality.

Scientists hope they’ll gain a better understanding of  the onset, frequency and duration of sleep disruption in cancer survivors and their families by comparing the two groups

“The data will hopefully provide some insights on possible patterns or triggers for sleep difficulties, and help us tailor better therapeutic approaches to promote healthy sleep,” said Dr. Tomfohr-Madsen. “We think we are going to be able to identify what factors might be causing them to have sleep problems so that together with the researchers here at Alberta Children’s Hospital we can put together a package that would do good intervention, so we could tell kids when they’re leaving the hospital, these are the things that we’re worried about could contribute to poor sleep and so these are the things we want you to do differently over the next month, year, rest of your life.”

For more information on the study, click HERE or call 403-220-5086.