Bedtime Strategies for Your Child with Special Needs

Bedtime. It can be difficult in the best of circumstances, but for parents of children with sensory issues, autism or ADHD, it can feel like a losing battle. But don’t give up! There are steps you can take to have a better time at bedtime.

Set the stage for sleep
Make your child’s bedroom into a relaxing sanctuary. Turn off all electronics including TVs, smartphones, iPads and computers, keep lighting dim and use black-out shades. If your child insists on having light in her room, guide her to a nightlight. “Although it may be tempting to allow them the extra light to allay their concerns and fears of the dark, too much light is counterproductive to natural body rhythms that trigger sleep,” according to the folks at the Sleep Matters Club. “As darkness descends, the pineal gland in our brain releases the hormone melatonin, which regulates sleepiness. This function is an important reason why children should not be exposed to electronic devices or televisions in the hour before bed. Not only is the content stimulating, but the light from the screen, blue light, is especially disruptive to this process, inhibiting the release of melatonin.”

Be sure the room’s temperature is comfortable for your child. The Sleep Matters Club people say the optimal temperature for sleep is a cool 65 degrees.

Use soft, not scratchy, linens and put toys away to decrease distracting and overstimulating clutter. Clutter “triggers more excitatory sensory input, slowing the body’s transition to relaxation and sleep,” says the Sleep Matters Club. “A clean space has a decidedly calming effect, helping your child ease into sleepiness.”

Choose a reasonable bedtime
Taking into consideration your child’s age, internal clock, your family’s schedule and his school’s start time, decide what time you want your child to be in bed and ready for sleep. Not sure how much sleep your child needs?  Consult with this chart from the Harvard Medical School HEALTHbeat newsletter. Based on the bedtime you choose, determine when to start your bedtime routine. For example, if you want your child to be ready for sleep at 8p.m. – you may need to begin turning off electronics, running a bath, putting on PJs, brushing teeth and reading a story by 6:30 or 7.

Routine rules!
Getting your child used to a consistent routine goes a long way toward decreasing the stress around bedtime. Though routines aren’t created overnight, they’re worth building. Marci Wheeler of the Autism Support Network stresses the importance of a bedtime routine for children with autism. “A bedtime routine should be the same every day and should include activities that are pleasant and relaxing as well as special and individualized to fit your child’s needs and interests,” says Wheeler. Some activities that may work well “include looking at the same book or story each night, saying good night to favorite objects, toileting, bathing, getting pajamas on, brushing teeth, having a glass of water, singing a favorite song or prayer, listening to calming music that the child enjoys, hugging and kissing family members and/or engaging in a calming sensory integration activity,” says Wheeler.

 Lights Out
When the bedtime routine is complete, it’s time to turn lights out and tuck your child into bed. A weighted blanket, a night light with soft sounds, and a favorite plush toy can facilitate sleep. Enabling Devices has created a simple Bedtime Bundle that includes a light projector with soft sounds, a weighted blanket, and a soft vibrating animal friend. Learn more at



Happy Father’s Day!

Fathers’ contributions are invaluable
Despite significant increases in the numbers of stay-at-home fathers and dads who take active roles in the care of their children, many parenting magazines, books and blogs are geared almost exclusively toward mothers. Likewise, fathers are often overlooked at their children’s schools, by pediatricians and other clinicians. That’s unfortunate since research shows that paternal involvement is extremely important to children’s development in a myriad of ways. With Father’s Day just around the corner, this week’s blog addresses dads’ invaluable contributions to their children’s lives.

Involved fathers have smarter children
Studies have shown that engaged fathers are more likely to have children that have higher IQs and do better in school. For example, a recent study published in the Infant Mental Health Journal found that “the association between paternal interactions and cognitive outcome is evident at a very early age.”  More specifically, the study reported that babies who actively engage with their fathers, perform better on cognitive tests.

Dads’ communication styles help children with language development
While moms tend to communicate with their young children in high-pitched, sing-song tones using words they are likely to recognize, dads are more likely to talk to their children as they might talk to other adults, using vocabulary words that may be unfamiliar, and discussing topics that pertain to happenings in the outside world. According to University of Washington researcher Mark VanDam, fathers’ verbal interactions “might act as a link to the outside world,” helping to prepare them for life outside the home and family.

Additionally, researchers Lynne Vernon-Feagans of the University of North Carolina and Nadya Pancsofar at the College of New Jersey told they were surprised to discover that “not only are fathers important for children’s language development, but that fathers matter more than mothers.” Their studies found that “when fathers used more words with their children during play, children had more advanced language skills a year later.”

Dads encourage [healthy] risk-taking
Dads tend to be more relaxed [than mothers] when it comes to their parenting styles, says Larry Cohen, a psychologist in Boston and author of “Playful Parenting.” Whereas mothers may discourage children from engaging in potentially dangerous sports or taking on challenges they feel may be beyond their child’s abilities, fathers are likely to encourage them. While this may be a risky proposition, especially for children with disabilities, it may also push them past their comfort zones, building their confidence and skills.

Dads make great playmates
While moms are known for their empathy, nurturing and caregiving, children often turn to their dads when it’s time to play. As we well know, play is one of the most important activities of childhood. “Play—especially active physical play, like roughhousing—makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful,” write authors Anthony T. DeBenedet, MD and Lawrence J. Cohen, in their book, “The Art of Roughhousing.”

While children with physical disabilities may not be able to roughhouse, they can still benefit from their fathers’ propensities for silliness. According to the New Zealand Herald, “Researchers from Sheffield University discovered the importance of both “silly play” and imaginative play during tests on children aged 16 to 24 months. Jokes included an adult putting a toy chicken on their head, while fantasy games involved activities like pretending to wash hands without soap or water.” Such play, said the researchers, improved children’s social skills and increased creativity.

And clinicians at the Hanen Centre, an organization dedicated to building children’s language and literacy skills maintain that fathers’ playstyles are “uniquely suited to support the play development of their children with ASD [autism spectrum disorders]. Fathers have special ways of playing with their children, such as physical and rough-and-tumble play. This type of play can be very helpful and motivating for children with autism.”

Dads’ love corresponds to better outcomes for kids
Though no one can deny the importance of being raised by a loving mother, “knowing that kids feel loved by their father is a better predictor of young adults’ sense of well-being, of happiness, of life satisfaction …,” says director of the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut Ronald Rohner.  In a 2012 interview with Live Science, Rohner said he wasn’t sure why fathers’ love had a greater impact on adult children than mothers’ love, but he hypothesized that in families where dads have more “influence and prestige” than mothers, “his actions might make the greatest impression on the children.”