Sleep and Special Needs

Cardiologist listens to the heart of a child with Down syndrome, the concept of health and medical examination of children with special needs

Bringing up a baby is some seriously, seriously hard work.

Think of the hours, the commitment needed, the ambiguity of information, the stakes involved, and the endless, ever-evolving challenges that kids throw at us.

And all those regular parenting challenges are present when you have a child with special needs, along with a few others thrown in on top. Sometimes those extra challenges are incidental, sometimes they’re significant, and sometimes they’re monumental. 

Helping a baby with special needs to learn independent sleep skills is no different. It comes with all of the regular hurdles, and on most occasions a few more to boot, but kids with special needs (and their parents) still need quality sleep in order to thrive, so I wanted to discuss some tips for working with them.

So even though we may be dealing with specific issues in a special-needs child, there are a few universal truths when we’re trying to help develop some independent sleep skills. We need to get baby on a predictable, consistent schedule, we want to create and implement a relaxing bedtime routine, and we need to eliminate any sleep props that baby’s dependent on in order to get to sleep. We also want to make sure baby’s getting plenty of physical activity, daytime sunlight, and mental stimulation. 

You can read more about those in my other blog posts, or you can obviously call me for some one-on-one help, but in any case, special needs or otherwise, those are the cornerstones of great sleep.

Now these tips below are generalizations as well, and kids with special needs obviously vary greatly in their specific behaviors and predispositions, but as a general guideline, these would be the most applicable tips.

Be clear

Make sure that any new expectations about your little one’s sleep and schedule are outlined and explained very, very clearly. Go over it as many times as you have to until you’re confident that your child has a grasp of what’s expected of them, and explain your reasoning as best you can. Obviously, your approach will depend on your little one’s age and preferred method of communication.

Putting something up on the wall that outlines the steps of the bedtime routine can be a big help with this. A cute cartoon of a child putting on their PJs, having a bath, reading stories, and so on, with a little checkbox for them to mark off when they finish that step, helps them understand what happens and in what order, and familiarity with that routine will help the brain know when to start winding things down and start up the melatonin production.

A girl with down syndrome lying on the bed under the covers and hugging a teddy bear. Usually childhood in a family for children with disabilities

You want to communicate to the best of your ability that this is the way things are done, so repetition and predictability are crucial to getting the message across. Which brings me to the next point…

Be consistent

Teaching a baby or toddler to sleep through the night can come with a few nights of parental guilt, which leads a lot of parents to give up on the process before any real change has a chance to take effect, often within just a few hours. 

Add a special needs-related challenge on top of that, and it’s easy to understand how a parent could quickly feel overwhelmed. 

There is nothing more confusing to a child than inconsistency. Consistency helps a child feel safe and secure.  Remember, they’re still trying to get a grasp on how things work in the world, and if things are handled one way on a given night but differently the next, it can be exceptionally confusing for them. 

Making some slight tweaks to your approach might prove beneficial, but giving in and taking your child into bed with you because they’re being particularly fussy one night, but standing your ground the next, conveys a really confusing message. 

Be patient

Special needs kids can be tremendously strong-willed and it may take more time, effort, and dedication than other kids to change their behaviors. If you’re the parent of a special needs child, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but just try to keep it in mind when you’re responding to them for the fifteenth time in a night.

Most of us are pretty particular about our sleep. We like a certain pillow, we like to sleep in a specific position, we might like to have a glass of water handy on the nightstand, and if someone suddenly told us that we needed to change all of that, we’d likely get a little frustrated in the first couple of nights, even if we knew it was going to benefit us in the long run.

So when we’re working with a baby or toddler with special needs, you can just imagine how difficult it must be for them to adjust to this new way of doing things. They don’t understand the benefits of these changes, they’re tired, they’re frustrated, and they’re going to want someone to get things back to a recognizable, familiar pattern.

Being woken up in the middle of the night is aggravating at the best of times, but when it’s happening repeatedly, over weeks or months, to the sound of a crying baby, it’s very easy to lose your cool, so do your best to take some deep, calming breaths before you get up out of bed and keep in mind that this is tough for your baby as well, and that you’re working towards a solution. Things will get better over time as long as you stay on track, so try to keep that thought in the front of your mind when you’re feeling like giving up.

One thing I know for sure; you should never underestimate a child’s ability to do incredible things. They amaze us constantly with their ability to understand, adapt, and interact. As parents, we’re constantly awestruck at our little ones’ development and progress, and there’s no reason to think they can’t learn to sleep through the night if we provide them with the right guidance and support.


Share this post

Scroll to Top