When a child does not sleep well, the whole family can be affected. The child can be left either too tired to think, or they can be over-active. The parents could be exhausted and unable to think clearly. This could also lead them to feeling like they’re struggling to cope with their daily activities – including looking after their child with additional needs. Siblings can also be affected; they could be tired at school and unable to concentrate, or they could start behaving badly during the day. When everyone is lacking sleep, their health, wellbeing, and relationships will start to decline. Even though children typically start to sleep through the night before they are one-year-old, children with additional needs are more likely to have problems with sleep. In fact, 86% of children with additional needs have issues with sleep.1 So, if you’re finding bedtime tricky every night, you’re not alone.
Why Is Sleep Affected?
There could be various reasons as to why your child struggles to get a good sleep.
- A physical disability could make it harder for your child to get comfortable at night. They could also be uncomfortable due to muscle spasms, incontinence, or breathing difficulties. It’s natural to wake up when in discomfort, but getting back to sleep can be the issue.
- If your child cannot move independently, and needs to be turned in the night, this is likely to disturb their sleep.
- A visual impairment could make it hard for the child to know when it’s day or night, and when it’s time to be asleep.
- Hearing impairments could lead to children feeling anxious and isolated when hearing aids are removed at night.
- Neurological conditions that affect the brain, such as cerebral palsy or epilepsy, can also affect the brain’s normal sleep-wake cycle. Find out more about the sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm, here.
- Prescribed medication might also affect a child’s sleep pattern. For example, medication for epilepsy and ADHD can cause sleeplessness.
- Learning disabilities, or difficulty communicating, could make it hard for children to understand why and when they need to sleep.
- Sleeping disorders can also make it hard for your child to get a better sleep. You can read more about common disorders in children in our article here.
How Can You Help Your Child Get A Better Sleep?
Lack of sleep can lead to aggression, depression, hyperactivity, behavioural problems, irritability, and difficulty concentrating at school. Therefore, getting a good night’s sleep is incredibly important for a child’s physical and mental growth. We’ve gathered some tips and advice for you to help your child with additional needs get the sleep they need. It’s a good idea to work these tips around your child’s needed hours of sleep, which you can find here.
Make the bedroom a relaxing space. Having a safe, calm, and pleasant bedroom will help your child relax. It’s also best that they think of their bedroom as comfortable and relaxing, so avoid sending them to their bedroom as punishment. The bedroom should be cool and quiet, so make sure TVs, iPads, or mobile phones are switched off about an hour before your child goes to sleep. It’s also better for the room to be dark but, if your child finds the bedroom too dark, try a small night light that glows softly.
Have a bedtime routine. Put your child to bed at the same time each night and wake them up at the same time each morning – including weekends! The routine should fit in with your everyday family life, and your child should find it enjoyable. Typically, the routine could be made up of four or five relaxing activities, such as colouring, doing a jigsaw puzzle, drinking a glass of warm milk, having a bath, and finishing with a bedtime story once your child is settled in bed. If your child communicates by using objects, pictures, or signs, use these to help them understand the bedtime routine. A favourite toy could also be used to act out the routine so that your child becomes familiar with it, and social stories may help children with learning difficulties understand the routine.
Keep a sleep diary. A sleep diary will help you find out what triggers poor sleeping, and what seems to help. As different children have different patterns, especially if they have additional needs, it’s a good idea to keep a sleep diary over a two-week period to better understand their sleep pattern. This information is also useful to show to a doctor, as they can get a better idea as to how to improve your child’s sleep in a way that works for them.
Help them get used to sleeping on their own. If your child is used to having you in the bedroom when they go to sleep, they can be distressed when you leave them. If they wake up during the night and you’re not there, this can also be stressful for them. Gradually getting them used to you not being in the room when they fall asleep will stop them from feeling like this during the night. Avoid getting into bed with them or cuddling them, and keeping eye contact to a minimum will help, too. If you find this hard, reading a book to yourself might help. Increase the distance between you and your child every three days. So, if you start by sitting next to the bed, sit a bit further away each time until your child no longer needs you there to fall asleep. It’s important to be firm and stick to this – changing bedtime habits might take some time but, if you persevere, it’ll have great benefits for everyone in the family.
The above are ideas for how you can help your child get a better sleep, but the best way to help them is to talk to a doctor. A doctor will better understand your child’s needs and will advise you on strategies or medication that is best for your child.