If your child suffers from a sleep disorder, he or she is not alone. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics “sleep problems have a high prevalence throughout childhood and adolescence, with 25% to 50% of preschoolers and up to 40% of adolescents experiencing sleep-related problems.”
Sleep problems including insomnia, sleep apnea, night terrors, bedwetting and sleepwalking are even more prevalent among children and teens with disabilities. One study found that “49 to 89 percent of children on the autism spectrum had trouble sleeping,” says the Therapy & Wellness Connection. “Same goes for 25 to 50 percent of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and 34 to 86 percent of children with intellectual disabilities.”
Sleep deprivation is problematic for all youngsters, but particularly for those with special needs. For instance, “there is mounting evidence that too little sleep can exacerbate autism features, such as poor social skills,” says Spectrum News. “Children who do not get enough sleep often have more severe repetitive behaviors and a tougher time making friends than other people on the spectrum. They also tend to score lower on tests of intelligence.”
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your child’s sleep hygiene. Here are some tips:
1. Determine what’s causing the sleep difficulties
Sleep disorders can be caused by physical or psychological problems. For example, children with Down syndrome are prone to sleep apnea due to anatomical differences. In children with autism, sleep disorders may be caused by anxiety. Consult with your pediatrician or a sleep specialist and talk with your child to learn more about what may be causing the disturbance.
2. Stick to a schedule
It’s not always easy, but experts agree that the more you’re able to maintain a routine — dinner-time, tooth-brushing, bath-time, story-time, massage — the easier it will be to get your child to sleep. Children should also have a regular wake-up time. Try creating a chart with visual cues that concretize the bedtime routine. There are many printable charts available online. Here’s one example.
3. Create a sleep-friendly environment
Keep the room temperature cool and dark, play soothing music or use a rain or ocean-sound app to help children relax. “With calming music and a guiding voice, apps help kids relax, from a ‘body scan,’ during which you relax your body starting with your toes, to breathing and visualization,” says Beth Arky of the Child Mind Institute. Weighted blankets, such as this one sold by Enabling Devices, can also help to decrease sleep anxiety and increase relaxation.
4. Stop food and drinks a few hours before bedtime
“Children with special needs tend to have more sensitive digestive systems,” says Melissa Doman of Melissa Doman Sleep Consulting. “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.” Additionally, avoid caffeine and sugar which are stimulants and may keep your child from falling and/or staying asleep.
5. Cut off screen-time at least one hour before bedtime.
“The blue light emitted from the TV, computer, tablet and smartphone is detrimental to sleep,” says Doman. “Too much stops natural melatonin production in the brain, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.”
6. Provide mental and physical stimulation during the day
Make sure your child has opportunities to exercise her brain and her body during the day. That will tire her out so she can fall asleep when bedtime rolls around.
7. Install a monitor
If you have concerns about your child’s physical well-being overnight, install a monitor in the child’s room that will alert you should a serious problem arise.
8. Make sleep medications a last resort
Give behavioral techniques a serious try before considering pharmaceutical sleep aids. If after trying the techniques listed here, you’re convinced that only medication will do the trick, consult with your pediatrician. Your doctor may suggest starting with herbal treatments such as melatonin or valerian root, which have been shown to be safe and effective.