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Sleeping Challenges for Children with Special Needs

Sleeping Challenges for Children with Special Needs

We know it all too well- “We had a rough night of sleep so we might be a little drowsy today.” It’s a frequent conversation we have because sleeping challenges for children with special needs is very common. (Honestly, for all kids!) So, to help our parents out we wanted to share tips to help your children get a better night of sleep! Many of these tips are helpful for all children, not just children with special needs. We hope that these tips will help you, and your child, sleep through the night!


Talking About Sleep

Parents know how difficult sleep time can be. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that 25%-40% of neurotypical children have sleep-related challenges. This rate doubles for children with autism. Sleeping challenges for kids can look different. Here are some of the most common ones that we have seen:

              -Irregular sleeping & waking patterns
              -Sleeping less than average for their age
              -Restless sleeping

What is the suggested amount of time for a child to sleep? That depends on the child’s age! For children ages 2-3 they should sleep 12 hours per day, between their naps and normal bedtime. Children ages 3-5 should get around 11 hours of sleep because this is when naptime is gradually being reduced. After age 6, children should be getting around 10 hours of sleep at night and probably not be taking any naps.

Causes of Sleeping Challenges

There can be a variety of causes for a child’s sleeping challenges. It can be related to their daytime and bedtime habits, or it could be anxiety or nightmares causing a lack of sleep. Commons causes that could be affecting your child’s sleep are:
              -Daytime/bedtime habits
              -Nightmares or terrors
              -Restless sleep

Knowing what is causing your child’s sleep problems is the best way to solve the problem. A child’s daily habits can play a huge role in how they are sleeping at night. Just like adults, a child’s brain needs time to calm down and relax before they go to sleep. When there is a lot of noise or activity going on around bedtime that excites your child, and it can make it difficult for them to calm down and feel like it’s time to go to sleep. Another thing that makes it difficult is not having a routine before bed. Going to bed at a new time each night or even falling asleep on the couch some nights can make it difficult as well. Depending on the causes, there are different solutions!

Tips for a Better Nights Sleep

We mentioned a few of our tips above, but we have a few more up our sleeves! While changes in your child’s sleep probably won’t happen the very first night, it’s important to be consistent with any new sleep routines and changes. This will help their body to acclimate and get comfortable with it. Give it a few weeks and see what you can modify from there!

              -Beds are for sleeping: Yes, you know this – but a child’s bed should be strictly for sleeping. This helps eliminate any confusion of what time it is when they get into bed. It’s important that when they are reading, playing games on their iPad, or watching TV that they do it on a couch or somewhere other than their bed. We also encourage you to tuck your child in before saying goodnight! This ties into our next tip, a comfortable sleep environment.

Tips for a Better Nights Sleep

              -Comfortable sleep environment: This will look different for every child, but it’s extremely important! A child needs to sleep in comfortable clothing on sheets and blankets that they like. Weighted blankets, stuffed animals, and body pillows are all great options to have arranged in bed for a sensory seeking child. Many children also benefit from some sort of white noise while they sleep. Creating a comfortable sleep environment can really help children who might feel anxiety about bedtime or children who get restless in bed.

              -Create a visual schedule: We know you have seen this tip before, for multiple things. Your visual schedule can include pictures, objects, or just a check list to show what needs to be done to prepare for bedtime. Getting your child into a bedtime routine, with the help of a visual schedule, will allow their body to get into a routine and recognize when it’s time for bed.

              -Involve your therapists: Depending on what the sleep problem is, it’s helpful to fill in your child’s therapist or counselor. If you are going through toilet training during ABA therapy, they will be able to assist with ideas to help with anxiety your child might feel about wetting the bed and teach you skills to work on at home to help with bedtime.

              -Have a bedtime pass: The bedtime pass is a great tool for a child who loves to get out of bed in the middle of the night and wander into their parents’ room. When introducing the bedtime pass, have your child decide on a reward for the morning if they are able to keep their bedtime pass. At bedtime, let them know that they have the pass if needed for one thing (a visit from a parent, a glass of water, etc.) but once the pass is gone they have lost if for the night. If your child keeps the pass through the night, they are rewarded first thing in the morning! You can also create a larger reward that they work for after they have made it through a certain number of nights with their bedtime pass.

              -Schedule activities accordingly: Children love running around outside, playing video games, and doing all types of fun things that stimulate them. However, when it’s close to bedtime these aren’t the best activities for children. Try to plan these activities earlier in the day when they are able to go outside and enjoy the natural light. As bedtime is approaching, encourage them to read a book or relax and listen to calm and quiet music. This will help relax their mind and body and prepare them for bed. Studies show you should start preparing for bed about 30 minutes before bedtime.

If your child is having other sleep challenges, it could be related to a condition like sleep apnea or a number of other things. We highly suggest talking with your therapists and pediatrician to find the correct cause and the appropriate solution. A good night’s sleep is helpful for all – children and parents! We hope these tips help your child get a better night’s sleep tonight!

Zzz- The PediaPlex Family

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