For many kids with special needs, sleep is especially hard to get for a variety of reasons: seizures, reflux, rigid muscles, sensory issues, and more. The problem many of my parents face is that there are plenty of recommendations for neurotypical children, but very little information out there for children with developmental disabilities.
The good news is that you can improvement your child’s sleep. I have had the privilege to help parents of special needs kids from around the world get their children on a good sleep routine and to learn good sleep habits. Here are my top recommendations to get your special needs kid sleeping better and longer through the night:
Look at your child’s sleep problems as a learned habit
Just like you and I have become accustomed to a certain routine every night before going to bed, so has your child. We need to be in the same bed, have our pillow, blanket, etc. Your child has made these associations as well. But, ask yourself: are they the right associations? Many kids, whether disabled or neurotypical, have grown up needing to be rocked to sleep, needing to be breast or bottle fed, have a parent present, sleep in parents’ room, etc. to fall asleep.
But, that is what they have learned – they don’t know any better! I have found that many professionals (doctors, therapists, you name it) assume a child with special needs doesn’t sleep well because they have a disability, when in truth, they’ve learned certain habits around their sleep. Hundreds of parents have been told the only solution is melatonin or medications, when lasting results were made with the right sleep plan for their unique child.
Set up a routine
All kids crave routine, and for your child, it’s vital. Children diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, ASD, etc., are much calmer knowing what is coming next in their day. The same applies to sleep. If you establish a consistent sleep, nap, and wake up time, your child will know exactly what to expect. And, their brain also starts to learn when it’s time to shut down and when to wake up.
For the kids that I see who are on little or no routine, chances are that their sleep is not great. Establish a routine for the time leading up to sleep. Follow the same list of activities to get ready for bed every single night (like teeth brushing, bath, pajamas, or reading a book). Need ideas? This post gives you some more ideas for a calm, relaxing bedtime routine.
Greatly reduce or eliminate screen time
The blue light emitted from the TV, computer, tablet and smartphone is detrimental to sleep. Too much stops natural melatonin production in the brain, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.
For children with sensory issues, they experience this ten times worse than we do. Many of these children become addicted to these kinds of devices and will sit for long stretches playing games, songs, etc. It gives too much stimulation, making the brain work overtime to process it. For children who are restless, hyperactive, and/or can’t sleep, try to reduce and even eliminate screen exposure. At the least, suspend screen time 1 hour before bedtime to allow for natural melatonin production. Ideally, your child should be getting no more than 90 minutes total of screen time throughout the day.
Do not give food or water 2 hours before bed time
Children with special needs tend to have incredibly sensitive digestive systems. If your child has any issues of reflux or vomiting making sleep uncomfortable, do not give any food or water at least 2 hours before bedtime. If your stomach is still full when laying horizontal to sleep, acids from the stomach will leak into the esophagus, creating that sensation of reflux.
Also, look at what foods you are giving your child – products with sugar, salt, dairy, and gluten can aggravate reflux symptoms. These recommendations are also helpful for children with seizures as well.
Along with routine, it’s important not to deviate from what you have put in place. Things need to be black and white for child with special needs. They do not do well with gray area. That means, once a bed time is decided on, whatever wake time is – stick to it. This is key to improving sleep. Your child’s brain will start to anticipate going to sleep, and waking up.
Not sure if your child will understand what you’re expecting from him or her? As long as you are consistent in telling them what is expected, what is next, they will start to grasp what you’re asking them. Understanding comes through repetition and modeling by parents.
These points lay down the foundation to a better night’s sleep for your child. When starting to implement these changes, keep in mind that you are changing your child’s usual sleep habits. It will not necessarily be an easy transition at first, but stick with it and keep consistent and you will see positive changes.
If you are struggling with getting your son or daughter with special needs to sleep better, contact Melissa to learn how she can help.
*This blog post may also be found on my dear friend, Natalie’s site: www.miraclemama.com.au. She offers support and coaching for parents of special needs kids and is a great person to have on your side. She is based in Australia, but does Skype consultations for any parent seeking help.