Sleep for Your Child with Special Needs – Why It’s Crucial and How to Get More of It!
Sleep is something that many children struggle with, but for children with special needs it can be an even bigger challenge. There are already so many things that need to be prioritized for your child (therapy schedules, doctors appointments, school schedules, to start), but here’s why helping your child get a few more zzz’s should be at the top of the list:
Sleep is crucial to brain growth and development
As important as it is to give your child lots of stimulation through therapy, sleep is a key factor for getting the best results! At night, your child’s brain is doing a ton of background work. In the deepest stages of sleep, the brain is moving all new information learned that day to “permanent storage”. Once it’s there, the brain goes through everything and keeps important information and throws out “junk” data. In the early morning, your child’s motor cortex is working overtime to make sure that gross motor skills are solidified. In addition, the brain is strengthening connections, nurturing new brain cells, and cleaning up. If the body has time to rest, the brain can become a well-oiled machine!
Sleep is vital for your child’s overall health
Kids that are differently abled get sick….a lot. But, children who sleep adequately can build up their defenses against colds, flus, etc. Studies have shown that sleep is crucial to improving immunity, and getting adequate sleep allows your body to produce the proteins needed to reduce inflammation and infection (see NCBI).
Sleep is key to regulating behavior
In the short term, sleep can make anyone feel better the next day! But, did you know that chronic sleepiness negatively affects behavior? When a child is overtired, the part of the brain that controls sleep/ wake cycles, sensory perception, attention span, balance, and behavior goes completely haywire. If your child struggles to regulate emotions, gets hyperactive, or “stims” a lot, make sure that they’re getting the hours of sleep they need.
Sleep helps to regulate hormones
Many children with special needs are often much smaller than average kids. Sleep actually helps to keep hormones in check. It allows the body rhythms to stay in sync with each other for the next 24 hours cycle. There’s a reason why many professional athletes sleep a lot — the body naturally produces growth hormones while resting!
So, now you’re probably asking, “So this all sounds great — but, my kid is a lousy sleeper! What do I do?” These are the most effective tips for any child regardless of their diagnosis:
1. Get your child to bed early
By getting your child to bed at an earlier time, you’re taking advantage of the “window of opportunity” and you prevent overtiredness. When parents make bedtime a little earlier, it can reduce frequent wakes ups, tossing and turning, and those pesky early mornings. It’s because you’re catering to what mother nature wants! For majority children up to 7 years old, I recommend a bedtime between 7-8pm. After this age, bedtime can be a bit later. However, make sure that your child is getting the hours they need to determine your child’s schedule: Sleep Foundation.
2. Establish a “wind down routine” 1 hour before bed
Your child has a pretty busy day! Taking the hour before bed to have peace and quiet makes it much easier to wind down for bedtime. Use this time to read books, play quiet games, listen to music, and ultimately get ready for bed. Make sure that whatever you do, keep the routine consistent. The more predictable this wind down routine is, it will be much easier for your child to predict sleep is coming.
3. Avoid screens at least 1 hour before bed
Whatever you do, avoid screens before bedtime. The blue light that comes from a phone, tablet, laptop, or TV screen tricks the brain into thinking that it’s still daytime. That delays the creation of melatonin — this is the sleep hormone! When this release is delayed, it will take a child much longer to fall asleep and parents often see signs of overtiredness at that point. For kids with special needs, the mixed messages sent to the brain can make things really chaotic. So, do your best to avoid screens at least 1 hour before bedtime.
4. Avoid sugary, salty, and processed foods after lunchtime
Your child’s stomach lining contains millions of neurons (brain cells) and helps with the very basic functions of eliminating waste. When sugary and salty foods are in the system, your child’s digestive system has to work harder to get these foods out. A very effective thing is to avoid junky foods after lunch. Your child will have an easier time getting to sleep, and is less likely to wake up due to stomach disturbances.
A great night’s sleep can be possible for you and your family! Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of making simple changes. But with patience and consistency these changes can become permanent, and your child can use these tools to sleep great and give their brains the time they need to grow!
Melissa Doman is a sleep consultant specializing in sleep training for kids with special needs. She is also the director of Mobility Development and Nutrition for Doman International. She is located in Philadelphia, and teaches families remotely across the US and around the world. www.melissadomansleepconsulting.com