Sleep Train or Potty Train?

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When speaking to special needs families, this question of what to start with comes up a lot.

“We’ve just gotten a potty training plan from our BCBA.”

“We’re set to toilet train in a couple weeks. Should we wait to start a plan?”

It is important to give your child to opportunity for independence with their toileting and other daily life skills.  However, here are my top reasons why you should consider sleep training first:

Your child will be better rested

When your child with special needs is getting adequate sleep, they will be more focused and better regulated.  Good quality sleep also helps the sensory areas of the brain function better.  This sensory perception is crucial for “feeling” the urge to go potty.  Consequently, staying better focused will help your child to better “connect” that feeling to using the potty.

Potty training is a process where you and your child need to feel successful right from the start.  Set yourself and your child up for these wins with a good night’s rest.

Prepares you for the consistency

Although I’m not a potty trainer myself (my teammate, Katie, is!), I know that the beginning of the process usually entails an insane amount of trips to the bathroom.  You’ll use checklists, follow the same process over and over.  Some plans I’ve read will time it so a child takes a potty break every 30—45 minutes!

In a 12 hour day, that’s a loooooot of stops.  And, a ton of consistency and modeling.  I think we can agree that this could challenge even the most organized, diligent parent.

With sleep training, it requires a lot of repetition.  Don’t get me wrong!  However, once your child is asleep you will (hopefully) get a few hours break before you’re back “on call”.  In addition, it allows you to get the hang of following a routine once a day, before doing a routine 5, 8, 10 times a day.

Finally, for most families either one or both parents work full time.  By starting a sleep training plan first, you’re more likely to have the help of your partner in following a plan.  With daytime potty training, you might be doing it more on your own. When you’re exhausted, that’s a lot of pressure on you.

Independent sleep makes potty breaks easier

I need to go potty.

This phrase is a child’s secret weapon.  Kids learn – very quickly – that this phrase throws the whole house in a tizzy.  It is all hand’s on deck to make sure we act upon this request.

However, when you’ve heard this for the fifth time…at 2am…your child has probably learned that this will get your attention.  Your child has learned that this is their way to get around the boundaries that you’re trying to set down around bedtime and sleep.

Once your child is an independent sleeper, they’ve learned that they need to stay in bed.  You’ve had the opportunity to show them how you’ll respond if they do need to go.  

Now, this does not mean that they won’t try asking for the potty once they’ve been sleep trained.  And, it does not mean you won’t take them if they do ask 5 times.  The most important thing is to do your best to stick to the rules you’ve put into place around bedtime.  If they do need to go, keep it business like.  

Soon, they will learn that it’s not worth asking so many times.

Better sleep can correct digestive issues

Digestive problems are very common for kids with special needs.  They might struggle with constipation, reflux, constant gassiness/bloating, and/or diarrhea.  Very often, simple nutritional changes and supplementation can help ease this discomfort for your child.  But, getting adequate sleep at night can also help to improve these issues.  

I often joke with my families that 1-2 weeks into their child’s sleep training plan that they might start to see changes in their child’s bowel and bladder schedule.  It’s totally normal!  As sleep quality starts to get better, the next system that adjusts is digestion.  It’s no surprise – the digestive system is also working overtime to detox and clean out at night.

Making sure that your child is getting adequate rest will only help the potty training process.  Improving these issues will make it easier and more successful for your child to learn potty independence.

But, we’ve already started potty training — should we wait to sleep train?

This is usually the next question I’ll get when talking to parents the first time.  And, the answer is: it depends.

If you’ve just started pee training with your child, my recommendation would be to wait until pee training is going well.  When you’re in the midst of this, it can just be a lot of change for your child.  And, getting your child independent with 2 things can be really overwhelming for child and caretaker.  Remember, it’s your habits that are changing, too!

If you are ready to start some sleep training with your child with special needs, be prepared.  Make sure that you have extra sheets, plastic lining, or bed mats, in case of accidents.  This will allow you to make quick changes and keep things on track with a sleep training plan.  

Remember, good sleep is the foundation for learning, succeeding and thriving! Making sure your child is getting the best sleep possible will make learning any independence activity easier.

Melissa Doman and her team of Special Needs Sleep Coaches are here to help you and your family. We work with children of a wide variety of diagnoses including: autism/ASD, ADD/ADHD, Trisomy 21, Cerebral palsy, Sensory Processing, Developmental delays, and more. Schedule a discovery call today!