Sleeping difficulties are common among children and adolescents, and cancer patients are no exception. In fact, children with cancer are especially susceptible to difficult sleep and need particular support to get the rest needed for health and recovery.
Why Sleep is Difficult for Young People With Cancer
Whether in a hospital setting or undergoing treatment at home, young people with cancer may experience disturbed sleep due to environmental conditions, side effects, and schedules.
In a hospital setting, young cancer patients may be disturbed by environmental conditions, including sounds and lights throughout the night (and daytime, if napping). Disruptions from medical staff are common for medication dosing and vitals around the clock. Even the night shift is likely to come in for rounds at least once, potentially disturbing sleep every night a patient is in the hospital.
Another major factor is medication, and the side effects that can come with them. Fatigue is common during chemotherapy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean young cancer patients are able to sleep more and get good quality sleep. In fact, research indicates young cancer patients receiving certain medications stay in bed longer but sleep less and experience poorer quality sleep than other children, including other children hospitalized for illnesses other than cancer or those who are experiencing chronic illness
How to Support Healthy Sleep in Young Cancer Patients
Good sleep can be hard to come by for young cancer patients, but caregivers and family members can help make it easier with healthy sleep habits and support.
Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Even if nothing else seems normal, do your best to sleep on a regular schedule as you would normally. Consistency is key for regulating the body’s internal clock, so sticking to a schedule for sleep can help young cancer patients fall asleep easier at night.
Give plenty of environmental cues. Circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock) rely on many factors, and environmental cues are a big part of keeping circadian rhythms in line. When dealing with fatigue or in a hospital setting, it may be difficult to get outside, get exposure to light, or follow a normal schedule, but you should try your best. A simple walk in a hospital garden can be helpful. If getting natural light exposure outside isn’t possible, use light timing. Make sure young cancer patients get exposure to bright light in the morning, opening curtains and turning on lights as they wake up. At night, make sure lights are lowered down or eliminated as much as possible. Patients should get out of bed during the day if possible, as staying in bed around the clock can be another confusing factor for circadian rhythms, and physical activity (especially early in the day) is generally supportive of healthy sleep.
Limit screen time. Many children and adolescents struggle with screen time and sleep, and this problem can be especially pervasive for those who are bed bound or hospitalized. Screens are an endless source of connection and entertainment, and it can be tempting to use them at all hours. But the blue wave light emitted from screens can be confusing for circadian rhythms, telling the brain that it’s daytime – alert time – instead of time to sleep. Cut off screen time at least one hour before bed to make it easier to go to sleep.
Make the sleep environment comfortable. A healthy sleep environment is cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable. Manage any factors under your control to ensure that young cancer patients can sleep in an environment that’s healthy for sleep. Dim the lights, use white noise, and manage the temperature if possible. For patients who get cold at night, an electric blanket may be helpful.
Be careful with consumption. Patients eating a big meal at night, drinking coffee, or even eating chocolate during the evening may have disturbed sleep. A large meal is difficult to digest while sleeping and can divert energy from resting to digesting. Coffee, chocolate, and other foods with caffeine may leave patients too wired to sleep well when bedtime rolls around. It’s best to avoid them after 3 p.m.
Cancer treatment and sleep don’t always work together, but support can make it easier. Focus on healthy sleep habits and avoiding pitfalls to offer young cancer patients the best sleep possible for energy and healing support.