How is it that my naturally raised kids who are always the shortest in their class wake up in the middle of the night with growing pains all the time?
I’m ever grateful when it’s just a sore knee and not an ear infection that has caused them to cry out, but I still want to help them get relief and get all of us back to sleep as soon as possible.
It turns out this isn’t Murphy’s Law of parenting at it again, but that “Growing Pains” itself is a misnomer. Growing pains don’t actually have much to do with kids growing, although the child feels a lot better to think that they are getting bigger through all that pain!
Just last night my three-year-old woke up crying, and as I was trying to figure out what was wrong, I ascertained through his frantic, only somewhat-coherent explanation that he must be scared. I caught the phrase “bad guys,” and with the speed at which he was talking, I went with the “I’m scared” scenario.
I know you’re scared, Mommy’s here now, you’re safe, breathe slowly, it’s ok…
All these appeasing and reassuring words were coming out of my mouth in that soft, gentle voice that moms use in the middle of the night.
It didn’t seem to be working, which made sense when he finally called out, “I need some little balls and a hot pad!” I realized that actually his ankle hurt. Or maybe it was his knee. Growing pains struck again!
I apologized and said, “Oh, you have growing pains! I’m sorry, I thought you were scared.”
“Oh I’m scared too,” he said. The life of a three-year-old in the middle of the night is complicated!
What Causes Growing Pains in Kids?
If you ask my kids, growing pains refer to any pains in legs or ankles that wake them up in the middle of the night. But let’s see what the experts say.
“In general, growing pains are felt in both legs, especially in the front of the thighs, back of legs (calves), or behind the knees. Despite the name “growing pains,” there is no firm evidence that growing pains are linked to growth spurts.” (1)
In fact, doctors even call them “recurrent nocturnal limb pain in children”. (2)
Many think growing pains might just be sore muscles after a day of big activity like running, jumping or sports – they tend to be more pronounced after kids have very active days. (1) This could be a result of decreased bone strength and/or lower threshold of pain in general in the child. Kids who are “hypermobile” (aka very flexible) may also experience more growing pains. It is thought that growing pains are a non-inflammatory pain. (3)
Often a child doesn’t want you to touch an everyday owie – recall the screeches of pain and suffering the last time you tried to wash off a scraped knee from a driveway tumble! But with growing pains, massage and rubbing tend to feel good (if it doesn’t, you may be dealing with something different or more serious). (4)
Sources vary wildly, but likely 20 to 40 percent of children under 12 have growing pains at some point, and they’re slightly more common in girls than in boys. (5)
What a shame that most modern medicine recommends pain relievers and almost nothing else – even though the “growing pains” are supposed to last only 15-30 minutes! (6) And apparently some kids are even on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID)…how does that make sense when growing pains are non-inflammatory in nature??? 🙁 52% of kids with growing pains are treated with medication – you can do better! (7)
My friend Heather has a lot of great ideas about what you can do to build your child’s resistance to growing pains during the day (nutritional changes), but what about when it’s the middle of the night and you need relief, NOW?
Here are 7 ways to help your child get back to sleep, fast:
1. Massage the Growing Pain in Your Child’s Leg
As soon as I ascertain where a child’s growing pain is, I start a good, firm rubbing on the area. I want them to know with great immediacy that I am taking care of them, and it also really helps to apply that counter pressure to alleviate the pain. (This I know well from Baby #1’s labor filled with back pain – my husband says his legs were so sore the next day from all the counter-pressure pushing…aw, poor guy, right?)
Although growing pains are technically in the muscle, for my kids they tend to centralize at the knees and ankles. My pediatrician confirmed that this is really normal. So I try to concentrate my massage around those joints.
I often focus on the back of the knee with small circles, or I might go up and down the thigh and calf muscles.
2. Homeopathic Arnica Works Fast for Growing Pains
Let’s take note before we move forward that I am not a doctor, nurse or practitioner of any kind, and I’m just sharing the knowledge I have as a mom. Please take my advice as you would your neighbor’s or the crazy lady at your church! This post is not meant to be medical advice.
This is the little balls that my son was asking for. We have always used homeopathic arnica montana 30c as our magic growing pains balls. Arnica is said to be the first line of defense against any physical trauma. If you only have one homeopathic remedy on hand, this would be a good one. (30C is fast acting, 30X is what you’d want if you needed to take it often like I did when I had my wisdom teeth out.)
Because this is a very quick remedy to administer, our little balls are the second option we always reach for.
To use a homeopathic remedy, you put the balls, usually 3, into the lid of the container. Try not to touch them with your fingers because the active remedy is on the outside of the ball and easily rubbed off.
Tip the contents of the lid into the child’s mouth, and if they are old enough, instruct them to hold the balls under their tongue. Under the tongue is the fastest way to get the remedy into the bloodstream.
It’s okay to use homeopathy even on children, and growing pains don’t usually begin until at least age 2, so you don’t have to worry about children younger (some homeopathics are fine for kids under 2 but some aren’t recommended, so please do your research for toddlers and babies). If the child does wake up again, you can give a second administration of the remedy as soon as 15 minutes later.
Two other homeopathic remedies for growing pains according to Homeopathy for Mommies include Calcarea Phosphoricum and Mercurious Sol, but I have never felt the need to add anything else to my repertoire.
3. Hot Pads or Hot Water Bottles for Immediate Growing Pain Relief
Heat is definitely the fastest and most effective way to immediately ease the ache of growing pains.
It takes a minute or two to prepare either option, which is why we tend to employ the rubbing and homeopathics first.
We have a microwavable bed buddy like this one or this (ours is so old there isn’t quite anything that matches), and we also have a cute teddy bear version sort of like this, which my youngest has aptly-named Hot Pad (we are not the most creative people here!). This is honestly the only reason we use our microwave. Find just about any animal you want here!
You can also make a microwavable hot pad DIY fairly easily by sewing a small cloth bag and filling it with rice. Even a tube sock filled with rice and sewn shut does the trick. Microwave for a minute or two to get to the right temperature. For adults, two minutes, but I find that for children 1 to 1 1/2 minutes is best.
Be ready with a thin sheet or blanket to put between the child’s skin and the hot pad, just in case it’s too toasty for them.
If you don’t have and don’t want a microwave, I would recommend an old fashioned hot water bottle. It still doesn’t take very long to prepare, just as long as it takes for hot water to come out of your tap. Do not use boiling water from the stove in a hot water bottle.
Electric heating pads are not recommended while sleeping, which defeats the purpose for growing pains!
4. Guided Breathing to Calm Down in the Middle of the Night
Once these three natural remedies have been employed, it’s time to try to help the child sleep again.
I find that encouraging deep breaths is the best magic sauce for sleep after crying. I will hold the child in a hug and demonstrate the deep breaths myself. I find that when you are chest to chest with a child, breathing very deeply and intentionally with your own body feels almost contagious to theirs. I imagine myself filling their body with air and peace with each of my breaths.
I like to tell my kids, “Breathe your body, nice and slowly,” in a soft, measured voice.
5. Essential Oils, Kid-Safe Growing Pains Blend
Another natural option to defeat growing pains is essential oils. Plant Therapy has a great Growing Pains blend in their Kid-Safe line.
You can purchase this blend either in a pre-diluted roll on bottle, which is great for a direct application to the area in pain, or as an undiluted oil to add to a bath or dilute yourself.
Sometimes the scent is calming, and the act of applying something directly to the skin can be as well. In our house, we have had the most success with the first three, but I really like having this on hand for those nights when you need a second time around.
6. Magnesium or Pain Relief Lotion
As long as you’re rubbing your child’s legs, they might as well get a little nighttime lotion!
Magnesium may help alleviate growing pains as well as help a child sleep, so you really can’t go wrong with some of Earthley’s Good Night lotion. This might even be a good preventative measure at bedtime.
MadeOn also makes a pain-relief version of their hard lotion called BeeCool Muscle Balm – BUT this includes menthol, which is really strong and feels so “cool” it’s almost burning, so I wouldn’t recommend for little kids. I would recommend testing a tiny bit while your older child is awake during the day just to make sure it’s not too intense for them at night.
7. The Power of Positive Thinking Goes a Long Way
When my child with growing pains has calmed down enough to lay down and rest again, I like to leave them with as many positive thoughts as I can. I know their cortisol and adrenaline has been rushing, so anything I can do to calm their mind will help them sleep.
I say things like:
- It will be so cool to see how much you’ve grown in the morning!
- I know it hurts, but it’s almost gone…
- The little balls will do their job, just rest and close your eyes…
- You’re all taken care of, now you can sleep…
- I know that was hard, but you were so brave, and you’ll be just fine in the morning.
- Growing is such hard work, but sleep will make it all better.
- You played so hard today and had so much fun, your legs are all tired out. But now they can rest and get better…
I know, kind of shady since the pain might not have to do with growing, but it’s such a nice sentiment!
And most importantly, keeping perspective and a calm voice will help you keep your cortisol in check so you too can get back to bed and sleep as quickly as possible!
Hopefully, your hot pad and little balls can do the job so that you don’t have to rub circles on your child’s knees all night long. It’s those nights when I curse the hardwood floor in my youngest’s room, the same floor for which I am so grateful when he has a stomach bug!
Here’s to more minutes in bed for all of us!