An eight-year-old child needs about nine to twelve hours of sleep per day, and a four-month-old requires twelve to sixteen hours a day. But whoever coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” was surely not a parent. Many parents’ concerns center on how and when to put their child to bed each night. Children ages infant to young adult thrive with a consistent sleep routine but often resist when bedtime approaches. A child with special needs can often present a different set of obstacles regarding settling for the night.
The guidelines for the number of required hours of sleep, set by the American Academy of Pediatrics, varies with age and notes that the numbers provided reflect a full 24 hours. Therefore, when assessing your child’s sleep needs be sure to factor in any rest periods taken during the day. A common phrase is “sleep begets sleep”. You want your child to be ready for bed in the evening and sleep soundly through the night, but this is not done by removing naps.
Some Causes for Sleep Problems in Children with Special Needs
A child that is exhausted due to loss of sleep during the day often has greater difficulty falling and staying asleep at night. Once you have calculated the number of hours necessary, you can then determine an appropriate bedtime for your child. The time chosen may fluctuate as your child ages, as different needs arise or even with the seasons. But it is important to choose a time that works for your family and that can be met with consistency. A set schedule and follow-through are large factors in establishing good sleep behavior.
The tips below focus on crafting a bedtime routine. Your child’s routine should begin prior to the actual time you would like them to be asleep. It is unreasonable to expect your child to be satisfied with a five-minute warning before lights out. A routine will help your child to know what you expect of them and how to meet those expectations. This, in turn, will instill confidence. Young ones with special needs may do well with a routine broken into multiple components or “mini-tasks”. Once established, your child will aim to please you and build their responsibility.
Here are some bedtime routine tips for your special needs child
A bedtime routine should coincide with the family settling down for the night. A dimly lit room with lamps or soft overhead lighting is preferable and sets the stage for a calm atmosphere. Adults and teens are often guilty of sleeping beside their phones, but technology that emits blue light is not conducive to sleep. The blue light radiating from screens inhibits the body’s natural process of producing “sleep-inducing melatonin” states the National Sleep Foundation.
To prepare the body for rest and maintain a circadian rhythm, a screen curfew should be upheld. Tablets, phones, and televisions should be powered down one to two hours prior to bedtime. If your routine must include a digital aspect, be sure to change the brightness settings to warm so the device will not interfere with melatonin production.
You can bring additional items into the room to create a sense of security. For some, weighted blankets can be used to soothe sleep anxieties and provide feelings of comfort. Parents of children with special needs will want to pay close attention to any sheets, blankets, and pillows used in their child’s room. Linens should be soft and not scratchy, keeping sensory stimuli at a minimum. A family photo or a favorite toy offers reassurance and familiarity. If your child is old enough to sleep with a blanket or similar item, one that carries the familiar smell of a parent is preferable. Some parents will keep blankets on rotation, sleeping with one at night so it keeps their smell when used by their child the next night.
Tidy and Cozy
As important as familiar items and objects are, the room should remain uncluttered and organized. A child with concerns pertaining to sensory and excitability will struggle with overstimulation if the room is in disarray and distractions such as toys remain visible. The final component of the bedroom environment is temperature. The temperature of the room should be set to a degree that is slightly cooler than during the day. Circulating air from a fan or window, depending on the weather, promotes comfortable continuous sleep. A cozy environment will ease your child’s transition into slumber.
1 Hour Before Bedtime
Having your child prepare for bed by changing into pajamas, brushing their teeth and using the restroom signals to them that bedtime is nearing. The body considers sleep a time of fasting, so provide your child with a light snack that includes protein or complex carbohydrates an hour before bed. This snack, for example, yogurt with granola, will fuel their body as they sleep and hopefully mitigate a few excuses to get out of bed.
A night-time routine should contain components that are pleasant and individualized. Does your child enjoy listening to stories? Singing a song? Talking about their day? By incorporating relaxing activities and establishing necessary tasks, your routine becomes efficient and enjoyable. Special needs children may enjoy calming sensory experiences pertaining to bedtime, such as listening to soothing sounds or telling family members goodnight with a hug or a kiss. The steps of the routine in which your child partakes should be pleasing but admittedly boring. A routine full of loud noises and stimulating activities can lead to unwanted excitability.
Once the routine is complete, tuck your child into bed, turn out the lights, and leave the room. Your child’s routine should follow the same pattern every night and have a defined ending point. Continually reading an additional story or giving just one more hug draws out the process and can increase feelings of anxiety surrounding sleep. If your child struggles with falling asleep at the end of the routine, reassess; you may need to start your routine later or adjust the chosen bedtime. If your child has difficulty staying awake during the routine, you will probably need to alter the time you begin preparing for bed.
It will probably take a few weeks for your child to acclimate to their new bedtime pattern. Consistency during this time is key. Keeping a journal or diary with detailed notes regarding your child’s sleep may prove beneficial. If the routine is not working for your child or your family, you may need to reconsider some aspects and adjust accordingly. There are quite a few tips presented here; picking the mix that works for your family will ensure everyone gets a good night’s sleep.
Routine Exercise Also Helps
Helping your special needs child expel their energy during the day can help them unwind at night. Special Strong has personal trainers that are specially skilled to work with children with special needs. If you’re interested in helping your child sleep better with the help of Special Strong, sign up for one of our private training classes or local boot camps today.
Aaron Stevenson is the founder of Snoozeez.com, a site about all-things sleep. When he isn’t reading and writing about sleep, he is usually spending his time relaxing on the lake, fishing.
Special Strong provides fitness and nutrition for special needs children, adolescents, and adults with autism and other disabilities. Through our online training platform, we also provide special needs fitness certification courses for personal trainers and service providers who want to work autism and other disabilities.