Letters from Maine

Sleeping poorly may mean itching more


Study results showing an association between active atopic dermatitis (AD) and poor sleep quality were published in JAMA Pediatrics by a group of dermatologists at the University of California, San Francisco (JAMA Pediatr. 2019 Mar 4. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.0025). The data on the sleep quality and quantity of nearly 14,000 children were collected over span of 11 years. Of these children, slightly fewer than 5,000 met the researchers’ definition of atopic dermatitis.

sleeping child in bed deyangeorgiev/thinkstockphotos.com

Although the sleep duration of children with and without AD was not statistically different, the reports of poor sleep quality and sleep disturbances by children with AD were dramatically more frequent – a nearly 50% higher chance of having more sleep-quality disturbances. In addition, children with more severe active disease were even more likely to report poor sleep quality – almost 80%.

I suspect that you’re not surprised by these findings. You have probably heard numerous tales of poor sleep from families who have children with AD. It just makes sense that a child whose skin is dry and itchy will have trouble sleeping. I’m sure you have struggled to help parents be more diligent about applying moisturizing creams and lotions, and have been aggressive with steroid creams during flare-ups. You may have added sleep onset-promoting antihistamines when topical treatments haven’t been as effective as you had hoped.

Has your working assumption always been that if you can get the child’s skin settled down, the itching will improve and the child will have an easier time falling asleep? But have you ever considered flipping the equation over and tried to be more aggressive in managing the child’s sleep problems? Maybe if the child had healthier sleep habits and ended his day with a smaller sleep debt, he could more successfully resist the urge to scratch.

Like many other folks with psoriasis, I have noticed that my itching is worse when I am tired, and particularly worse in that evil interval between crawling into bed and falling asleep. As the grandparent of a child with AD, I have observed a similar phenomenon. While I am not going to claim that sleep deprivation causes psoriasis or AD, I think that we need to consider the association between poor sleep quality and itching as a feedback loop that must be interrupted. This means that in addition to recommending topicals and moisturizing strategies, we must learn more about our patients’ sleep habits and suggest appropriate sleep hygiene practices.

Many parents aren’t aware of the cruel paradox that an overtired child is more likely to have trouble falling asleep. Has the child been allowed to give up his nap prematurely? Is bedtime at an appropriate hour, and does it consist of a limited number of sleep-promoting rituals? Is the bedroom dark enough, cool enough, and free of electronic distractions?

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Providing effective counseling on sleep hygiene is time consuming and requires that you have first convinced the parents that the child’s itching is being aggravated by his sleep deprivation and not just the other way around. Successful management may require a close working relationship between the child’s pediatrician and his dermatologist, with both physicians reinforcing each other’s message that atopic dermatitis isn’t just skin deep.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Is My Child Overtired?: The Sleep Solution for Raising Happier, Healthier Children.” Email him at [email protected].

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