When it comes to improving a child’s sleep, especially for children with special needs, one thing that parents do need to look at carefully is their child’s vision.
For some children, they may have blindness, limited vision, or can be incredible sensitive to light. Our brain is reliant on light and dark changes throughout the day.
This natural stimulation helps the body to have a regular sleep/wake clock.
However, for children diagnosed with CVI, optic nerve atrophy, blindness, etc. their brains are unable to perceive light the way you and I do. If this information does not get to the brain, this can completely throw off your body clock.
Many children I have worked with that have visual problems will have very erratic sleep schedules — unusual nap times, very late bedtimes, and in some cases their schedules are completely flipped!
In addition to instilling great sleep hygiene, parents can help their children sleep better by giving the brain the information it needs to learn that light means awake, dark means sleep time. Here are some simple things you can do at home to help your child with special needs:
Your child’s environment should contrast as much as possible
When your child first gets up in the morning, make sure to bring them into a really bright, daytime environment as soon as they wake up. As the day goes on, make sure that things continue to stay nice and bright places.
As bedtime gets closer, you can always turn down the lights a little bit or turn on fewer lights in the house. Come time for bed, you want to make sure that their room is pitch black.
Even if their vision is not great, we want to make the contrast as stark as possible. The message has to be clear — darkness is for sleeping!
In addition to black out curtains, make sure that there’s no light coming in your child’s room from the hallway or other windows. You might need to cover your windows with something more permanent — even blacking them out with paper, aluminum foil, black trashbags, etc. is a great and cheap way to do this.
Even if your child cannot see very well, this is a great way to get things started with getting the right messages across.
Stimulate the light reflex
As sophisticated as this sounds, it’s actually quite simple! The pupil (black dot in the middle of the eye), is the one way road into the brain. When the pupil gets smaller with light, bigger with darkness this is a reflexive response.
If you’re going to teach the brain how to perceive light and dark, you have to exercise this reflex. Bring your child into a room with little outside light influence (like a bathroom or closet). A few times a day, spend a minute or two turning on the lights for a few seconds, and then turning them off.
Each time you turn off the light, tell your child that dark is for sleeping. When the light’s back on, tell them light is for play time (or being awake, whichever you prefer).
Show your child bold, high contrast images
If your child cannot see well, it’s important that you show them images that are bright, bold, and have lots of contrast. You can do an image search on Google, or show your child books with these kinds of images.
A few times a day should be enough, but depending on how affected your child’s vision is, you might have to do it more. If your child has really good visual acuity, knows simple pictures, or reads, then this stimulation would not be necessary. Here are some great examples of simple images:
It’s these simple tools that can enhance any sleep changes that you are making at home.
And the great thing is that with any of these stimulations, more cannot hurt! The more consistently you can send these visual messages to the brain, it will teach the brain how to regulate the sleep/wake clock even better!