Day in and day out, I speak with special needs families about their child’s sleep struggles. These kids can’t fall asleep quickly, stay asleep, will be up for hours at night, wake super early in the morning, go more than 24 hours without sleep…and more.
Often, parents are told that there’s nothing they can do to get their child resting better. They’ll be given a prescription or recommended melatonin, then the doctor moves on to their next patient.
No questions are asked about bedtime, routine, or more importantly what parents do to help their child sleep.
And, in 99% of cases – this is the issue:
Mom or Dad needs to help their child get to sleep at night (even if it does take forever). You may have to rock, hold, feed, pat your child or lie with them. Some kids just need someone in the doorway to feel safe and comfortable going to sleep. I’ve had kids that will only go to sleep if they’re in a swing.
I’ve seen this in kids as young as babies, and for teenagers!
And the problem with going to sleep this way is that when your child does finally go to sleep, they’ll wake up later in the night (multiple times) looking for that help. Again, and again, and again. It’s like going to sleep with your pillow and blanket and then waking a couple hours later to find them gone. How startling!
Your child with special needs is experiencing that startling experience over and over again.
Not only will your child keep waking to find that help, but it’ll interrupt the quality of their sleep. Even a few short wake ups interrupts everything that the body does at night and chips away at good quality sleep. Worst case, your child will wake up, look for that help, and won’t fall back asleep for a while…or at all.
“But, I know my child is tired and I’m there! Why don’t they just fall asleep again?”
For many children, especially those with sensory processing issues, ASD, ADHD, once they’re up their brains immediately start to scan the environment. What we pay no mind to (the hum of the heating system, traffic noises outside), your child perceives as a threat. They won’t fall back asleep until that part of their brain has calmed down again.
We all have this “flight or flight” response. Because of heightened senses your child’s brain goes into overdrive. Even if you’re giving the exact help your child needs, they still take a while to settle back to sleep.
But, many professionals don’t even consider independent sleep for kids like yours.
They don’t think your child will understand or is capable of making those changes. Or they simply don’t know how to help parents with this. But, you know your child can understand a lot of things. And, they have everything in them to learn how to settle at night on their own. No rocking, no patting. Completely on their own.
Some parents are worried about how their child is going to react. Will they get out of bed too much? Will they cry? The short answer: yes, but only temporarily. If you’re consistent with sticking to the boundaries, and giving your child the space to sleep on their own they’ll learn soon enough.
It breaks my heart time and time again when kids are given tons of melatonin or medication when all they really need is a chance to develop their own sleep skills. And I’ve seen this time and time again. Once a child can sleep on their own, they no longer need this “help” from meds.
And that’s because your child can finally get to sleep on their own and get great quality sleep. With that consolidated sleep, they can thrive the next day, and have another great night’s rest. Everything is in sync!
It’s not always an easy journey, but it can be done!
Your child with special needs can learn to sleep on their own. I’ve had the pleasure to teach nearly 200 families like yours how to do it. It takes time, patience, and a sense of humor. But, for many families knowing that the end result is a great night’s rest for the whole family it’s worth every minute. And, in the life of a child with special needs being able to do something independently is a huge win and opens the door to independence elsewhere.