Sleep and Your Child with Special Needs

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 parents face is that there are plenty of recommendations for sleep in well children, but very little information out there for children who are not neurotypical. 

The good news is that you can improvement your child’s sleep.  I have had the privilege to help parents of kids with special needs 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 child sleeping better and longer through the night:

1) 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 have also learned that to fall asleep, we need to be in the same bed, pillow, blanket, etc.  Your child has made these associations as well.  But, ask yourself: are they the right associations?  Many kids, whether disabled or well, 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 do not know any better!  When starting sleep training, my job is to give parents the tools they need to teach their little ones healthy habits to sleep better through the night and independently.  I have found that in many cases, people make the excuse that a child with special needs doesn’t sleep well because they have a disability, when in truth, they have just learned poor sleep habits.

My recommendation is to start teaching your child to associate their bedroom as the room for sleep (not play).  Assign “props” like a pillow, blanket, or toy/lovie to be present with your child as they fall asleep.  Slowly start to make the transition to having your child sleep on their own.  In cases where children have seizures, parents can either set up a monitor or separate sleep area in their room for these children.  It’s important that your child does learn to fall asleep without needing you there.

2) Set up a routine: All kids crave routine, and for a special needs child, it’s vital.  For the children that I have worked with diagnosed as ADD, ADHD, ASD, etc., I find that they 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 good either.  Parents need to 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).

3) Greatly reduce or eliminate screen time: The blue light emitted from the TV, computer, tablet and smartphone is detrimental to sleep.  Too much exposure suppresses melatonin production, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.  For children with sensory issues, they experience this ten times worse than we do.  Often these children are dealing with sensory overload, and become addicted to these kinds of devices and will sit for long stretches playing games, songs, etc.  It gives too much stimulation to the sensory pathways, making the brain work overtime.  So for children who are restless, hyperactive, and/or can’t sleep, try to reduce and even eliminate screen exposure.  At least, suspend screen time 2 hours before bedtime to allow for natural melatonin production.

4) Do not give food or water 2 hours before bed time: The brains of kids with special needs are much more sensitive than ours.  They also tend to have much more 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.

5) Consistency: Along with routine, it’s important not to deviate from what you have put in place.  Things need to be black and white for a 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 also start to anticipate going to sleep, and waking up.  Not sure if your child will understand what you’re expecting from him/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 of them.

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 special needs son or daughter 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.