Sleep Tips for Children with Special Needs

Being a new parent is exhausting and hard work, but absolutely worth it; even with the ever-changing challenges our kids throw at us. Just when you think you have one thing figured out, your child with reach another milestone, and new challenges will be thrown your way.

Now imagine adding the parenting challenges thrown on top when you have a child with special needs. Sometimes those extra challenges are incidental, sometimes they’re significant, and sometimes they’re monumental. Sleep is one of those challenges.

Although the sleep coaches at Tender Transitions haven’t specialized in working with children with special needs, we have some experience and want to share these tips that help a child with special needs learn independent sleep skills. Sleep is just as important for families with special needs as those without. We all need quality sleep to thrive.

Even though this post focuses on specific issues with special needs, there are some common truths for all children.

What are those?

  • Predictable, consistent schedule
  • A relaxing bedtime routine
  • Eliminate sleep props (aka – items that your child is dependent on for sleep)
  • Daytime activity, sunlight and mental stimulation

These are the cornerstones of great sleep.

cornerstones of great sleep for children and children with special needs

The tips below are general guidelines and kids with special needs vary greatly in their specific behaviors and predispositions, but these would be the most applicable tips.

1. Clear Expectations

Depending on your little one’s age, the approach will be different; however, communication is key at any age. Make sure to explain any new expectations clearly. Go over it as many times as you can until you’re confident that your child has a grasp of what’s expected of them and explain your reasoning as best you can.

A clear, yet simple way, to accomplish this with toddler-aged children is to put a chart on the wall that illustrates the steps of the bedtime routine. If you laminate it, you can also use it to check off each night when they’ve finished putting on their PJ’s, reading a story, and so on. The chart helps keep things sequential and consistency helps the body (and brain) know that it’s time to start winding down and start producing melatonin.

Being clear often is accompanied by repetition and consistency… which brings us to tip 2.

2. Be Consistent

sleep tips for a child with special needs

As parents, we know, it’s tough to enforce changes in our own lives, let alone our child’s life. And teaching a baby or toddler to sleep through the night can come with a few nights of parental guilt. Add a special needs-related challenge on top of that, and it’s easy to understand how a parent could quickly feel overwhelmed.

This initial struggle often leads to parents giving up on the process before any real change has a chance to take effect. And guess what? This inconsistency causes even more confusion for your child.

Your child is still trying to understand how things work in the world and if each night has different expectations, it can be really confusing for them. It doesn’t mean that you can’t tweak a few things, but allowing them to come into bed one night and not the next is not a helpful tweak. It conveys a really confusing message.

3. Be Patient

If you’re a parent of a child with special needs, you’ve probably experienced their tenacity and resistance to change. It may take more time, effort, and dedication than other kids to alter previous sleep habits. I’m sure that I am not telling you anything you don’t already know, but just try to keep this in mind when you’re responding to them for the umpteenth time in a night.

We all have learned sleep patterns. For instance, I must sleep on the right side of the bed even when my husband and I are on a trip. So, if someone suddenly told us that we had to change our habits, we’d probably be frustrated those first few nights as well. Even if we knew that it would mean a better sleep in the long run!

Your child probably doesn’t even fully grasp the benefits of these changes. They’ll be frustrated and want to go back to the way it was before. And with their frustration building, often so does yours. My advice is to take some calming breaths, then remind your child of the new bedtime routines even when it’s in the middle of the night.

Be patient. Change doesn’t happen overnight – pun intended. Things will get better over time. Keep that on the top of your mind as you roll out of bed once more to calm your child.

Before you know it, your child will learn to sleep independently. They can learn to sleep through the night if you provide them with the right guidance and support.

Need help figuring out how to create the right routine for your family? We’d love to chat with you about your sleep struggles and help develop a customized sleep plan that works for your whole family. Can you just imagine it? A full night of sleep! It can happen.

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