For many kids with special needs, getting a good night’s rest can be really tough.
And, there are many parents out there looking for solutions that don’t require medications or melatonin. You may be that parent who has tried everything — weighted blankets, essential oils, CBD oil, compression blankets, white noise — and your child still cannot sleep easily.
It can be really frustrating!
Knowing where to start in helping your child rest easier can be tough, too.
But, if you’re ready to get the ball rolling, here are my 5 do’s and don’ts when it comes to a great night’s sleep:
Become your child’s “prop”.
Does your child with special needs only fall asleep if they are fed, rocked or cradled? Do they almost immediately wake up when you try to leave the room? Will they only fall asleep if you are right there next to them? Your child has learned you are their sleep prop, and that without you, sleep isn’t happening. As children get older, this becomes a harder habit to break.
For babies and young toddlers who don’t sleep well, many parents are told to skip the afternoon nap to make night-time sleep easier. Nothing could be further from the truth. Naps are vital to a healthy circadian rhythm and for the energy needed to learn and grow. Skipping naps makes your little one too tired at night, often making falling asleep a bigger challenge.
Feed your child too much processed food.
If your child has trouble falling asleep at night, diet could be a contributing factor. If your child is eating too much sugar or processed food throughout the day, it could keep your child up when they should be resting. Imagine how difficult it would be to fall asleep if you’ve been drinking coffee throughout the day? For some kids, especially those diagnosed with autism or ADD/ADHD, they are much more sensitive to the foods going through their system. Making sure that your child is eating as wholesome as possible is key!
Over-do screen time.
Screen time, especially before bed, can greatly reduce the production of melatonin a hormone to make you sleepy. Blue light that is emitted from tablets, phones, computers and TV screens tricks your brain into thinking it’s daytime. For many children with any sensory processing issues, their brains perceive that night much more intensely, too!
Not stick to a schedule.
When bedtime and wake up time change from day to day, it does not allow your body to get accustomed to a routine. By teaching your child’s brain that sleeping and waking happen at the same exact time every day, it’s much easier for your child to slip into deep sleep and stay asleep longer.
Get your child to bed earlier.
When bedtime is pushed back, kids miss that window of opportunity to fall asleep easily and become overtired. What does that look like? Hyperactivity. When a child is overtired, falling asleep can be a big challenge. The closer to 7pm you can get your child to sleep, they are more likely to fall asleep easier and sleep longer through the night.
Create a routine.
Kids with special needs love routine! Having the same bedtime and pattern of activities each night, they will not only go to bed peacefully, but their brains will also learn the “cues” to start winding down for the day. I follow the same routine every night – brush teeth, pajamas, read, lights out. Because I follow this every night, my brain knows that I am getting ready to start my first sleep cycle for the night.
Give your child the right sleep props.
If someone took away your pillow and blanket, would you be able to fall asleep easily? Probably not. We need them to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. When teaching a child to fall asleep on their own, I recommend that parents give their little one a toy or blanket that is specifically for night time. These “lovies” will help to strengthen independent sleep associations.
Feed your child dinner ~2 hours before bed.
If your stomach is still working and digesting as you are trying to fall asleep, this could affect how long you are up for and it may affect your body’s natural circadian rhythm. For many children with reflux issues, laying horizontal soon after a meal can aggravate their symptoms. So, give your child a cushion of at least 90 minutes-2 hours between dinner and bedtime to allow for proper digestion.
In order to create new, healthy habits and break the old ones you have to be consistent. That means that bedtime needs to be the same every night, the routine has to be the same, as well as wake-up and nap times. Consistency applies to parents as well – you have to make sure that night-time wake-ups are handled the same way every time. If you want your child to fall asleep without need you rocking them, holding them, etc. you have to resist the temptation to revert back to your old habits.
Changing anyone’s sleep habits can be a challenge. But, with predictability, consistency, and patience your child can get a better night’s rest without meds and on their own.