TCM And Childhood Ailments: Disturbed sleep

It’s the middle of the night. Your toddler, who was sleeping peacefully just minutes earlier, sits bolt upright in bed, crying and screaming. On some nights, she trashes about, her eyes wide with distress.

These episodes fall under the heading of sleep disturbances, specifically night terrors. For first time parents, especially, they can be very distressing. Unfortunately, they are not uncommon among young children. Caregivers of young charges will recognise other more subtle symptoms of disturbed sleep, including restlessness, teeth grinding and mumbling. Obvious or subtle, the outcome of disturbed sleep is almost always tired, irritable children.

From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, restless sleep is the result of excess yang, or fire, in the heart and liver of the child. “Such excessive fire will affect the child’s quality of sleep and general temperament,” Eu Yan Sang TCM physician Tan Wen Jia explains.

The heart is described in one of TCM’s master reference texts, Huang Di Nei Jing (The Emperor's Inner Canon), as the ruler of the mind or spirit (shen), and is the seat of consciousness and intelligence.1 “The health of the heart affects the shen and can, in turn, lead to emotional disturbances such as anxiety, insomnia and palpitations,” Miss Tan says.

TCM practitioners seek to resolve sleep disturbances and ensure better quality sleep for children – and their parents – by reducing this fire. A TCM physician may refer to this as “calming the shen”. A number of TCM herbs can be used, including lily bulb (百合), red dates (红枣), dried longan (龙眼干), and lotus seeds (莲子).2 Together, these nourish yin – which complements and balances yang – clear heart heat, and calm the spirit.

An alternative or complementary treatment is paediatric tui na, a medical massage that stimulates specific acupressure points in children. One acupressure point for inducing rest is the spot between and slightly above the child’s eyebrows – this spot should be stroked gently for 10 to 20 seconds.3

Paediatric tui na is particularly useful for children who are not used to herbal medicine. Miss Tan recalls the case of a 2-year-old who had been experiencing restless sleep, accompanied by teeth grinding, mumbling and shouting for two weeks. “She would wake up between one and three times a night, and would shout and cry,” Miss Tan shares. “Her appetite and stools were fine. However, her tongue was red and her pulse was rapid.”

Miss Tan started the child on paediatric tui na, focusing on acupressure points along her heart and liver meridians during the first session to help clear the heat from these organs. Meridians are energy channels through which ‘qi’, or a person’s vital energy, flows.

“After a week, the toddler returned and her mother remarked that she had slept better on the night after the first tui na session,” Miss Tan said. “Tui na treatment continued weekly and by the fourth session, the toddler was able to sleep well at night without teeth grinding and shouting. She just had the occasional mumbling. She continued with weekly tui na for maintenance.”

In addition to TCM therapies, physicians will often advise parents to also incorporate and teach their children good dietary and lifestyle habits. These include eating and sleeping at regular times. Late nights and irregular eating patterns put children under immense stress, Miss Tan says. Over time, this stress can build up and cause the stagnation of liver ‘qi’, which can in turn generate internal heat, causing disharmony and disturbed sleep.4

TCM therefore advocates a holistic approach to ensuring a good night’s rest for children – and their parents – in which medication, massage, diet and lifestyle all play a role.

1, 4 Eu Yan Sang . (2016). Stress from the TCM Perspective. Retrieved from Eu Yan Sang Website:
2 Chinese Herbs Healing. (2014, August). Longan Fruit (Long Yan Rou). Retrieved from Chinese Herbs Healing Website:
2 Chinese Herbs Healing. (2014, August). Lily Bulbs (Bai He) Calm Spirit and Cough. Retrieved from Chinese Herbs Healing Website:
3 Tripi, N. (2009, July 10). 5 tips for infant acupressure points. Retrieved from Tripi's baby tips and trick: