Sleep Training a Special Needs Child- Tips for Parents and Kids
Many of us take a good night’s sleep for granted. For children with special needs, quality sleep can feel like an unattainable luxury, but it doesn’t have to.
Sleep training is the process of teaching a child to get ready for bed, sleep through the night, and wake up efficiently on their own. It’s something that’s universally practiced, but it’s especially crucial for children with special needs, many of whom need extra help managing nighttime challenges.
Of course, sleep training a child with special needs can look very different than what’s traditionally discussed. Fortunately, there are some key tips to keep in mind that should make it much easier to get started.
What is Sleep Training?
The goal of sleep training is to teach children to prepare for bed, sleep through the night, and manage nighttime stressors on their own, or at least as much as possible.
Sleep training is an ongoing process that begins early in childhood and continues, for many, into young adulthood. Sleep training isn’t something that’s exclusive to children with special needs; learning how to navigate bedtime is an important part of development for all.
How Can Sleep Training Help Kids with Special Needs?
Children with special needs often require more sleep than the average kid, but they’re also very likely to experience sleep-related problems.
This reality combined with obstacles that commonly face children with special needs (like autism elopement or nocturnal seizures) means that it’s extra important for parents to take a more hands-on role when sleep training.
The benefits of thoughtful sleep training are numerous, but primary among them is the ability to sleep through the night consistently. Sleep training can also help your child develop a regular sleep-wake schedule, combat daytime drowsiness, and develop independence.
Depending on your child’s needs, traditional sleep training tips and tricks may not be sufficient or appropriate. Children with special needs may require additional support, resources, or accommodations to keep them safe and comfortable, but the payoff for this extra effort is undoubtedly worth it.
Sleep Training a Child With Special Needs: Tips
When working to sleep train your child, try to keep in mind that night time is just as (if not more) challenging for them as it is for you. Especially when working with very young children, managing bedtime stress and routines can be frustrating; however, the tips listed below can help take some of the weight off of your shoulders.
1: Understand how your bedroom environment affects sleep.
It’s no surprise that the way your child’s room is set up can impact their mood, comfort, and ability to sleep, but this truth is especially pertinent for children with special needs.
These kiddos tend to have a much harder time than others when it comes to managing overstimulation or distractions. Too much sound, light, movement, texture, or even intense scents can all make a child’s mind feel like it can’t shut down or tune things out, making it all but impossible to get quality rest.
Likewise, a sleeping area that proves to be uncomfortable - your child may frequently get entangled in sheets, for instance, or experience falls from the bed - can become a major stressor.
Be sure to keep in mind just how crucial your child’s bedroom environment is. Even if they don’t realize it or communicate it, a space that keeps their mind moving instead of encouraging it to relax can be a huge problem.
Try to take steps to problem-solve based on your child’s unique situation. If their room has lots of windows, for instance, consider darkening curtains for evenings to block out external light from cars or streetlights. Alternatively, if your child is sensitive to certain textures or material, choose bedding that’s light or opt for fewer blankets.
2: Prioritize safety at night.
Depending on your child’s situation, safety features may or may not be a priority for their sleep space.
Many children with special needs are prone to nighttime injury either as the result of activity or uncontrollable health symptoms (like seizures). This is stressful for both child and caregiver alike and can make independent nighttime routines seem like a thing of dreams.
Fortunately, there are lots of steps caregivers and parents can take to keep a child’s sleep space as safe as it can be. You may, for instance, avoid placing hard furniture with sharp corners near your child’s bed or minimize opportunities for entrapment by sticking to simple bedding.
3: Incorporate exercise and activity into the day.
A common trigger for sleep issues is an excess of mental or physical energy. Regulating these feelings in an appropriate way is already hard for children, who tend to be much more energized than adults in general, but for those with special needs, it’s extra crucial.
A brain that lacks stimuli during the day tends to find ways to seek it out at night. Many conditions that impact children with special needs make it hard for the brain to settle down or regulate an internal “clock,” so sometimes it takes deliberate effort to teach it to do so.
To accomplish this goal and avoid evening jitters, encourage as much activity as you can during daytime hours. Whether it be physical activity, like playing outside, or something mentally-stimulating, like a fun puzzle, stimulus gives the brain a chance to exhaust itself enough to settle down when it’s time.
Children with special needs might experience bursts of energy at seemingly strange times of the day, but it’s still best to limit intense activity to daytime. Keeping your child in a calm headspace before and during bedtime should definitely be a priority.
4: Avoid screens, especially close to bed.
Screens wreak havoc on just about everyone’s ability to sleep well, so be sure to keep them far away from children who are already struggling.
It’s not necessary to cut out screens entirely, of course, but it is wise to avoid them as much as possible when the day begins to come to a close. Avoiding them for several hours beforehand is even better.
Screens stimulate the mind in a way that’s hard to undo, and because children with special needs already do so much to manage stimuli all the time, adding on to it is likely to cause further problems.
5: Pick a routine and stick to it!
Consistency is key when it comes to sleep training. The human mind loves repetition and routine, and many people with special needs of any kind find it helpful to have something they can fall back on without much thought or effort.
Once you and your child find a routine that works - maybe it’s bath time followed by a bedtime story, or some time spent cuddling a favorite stuffed animal - commit to it as best you can.
Over time, your child’s mind will grow to associate certain elements of routine with rest. Routine can help show the brain when it’s time to be active and when it’s time to calm down, making genuinely restful sleep much more attainable.
6: Identify ways to manage nighttime frustrations.
Even the most well thought-out sleep training routine can’t account for challenges that occur once everyone’s said goodnight.
If you’re able to, it’s a great idea to work with your child to proactively come up with solutions to potential nighttime stressors or problems. Even very young children can begin to develop ways to manage these sorts of concerns healthily and safely.
If your child struggles with insomnia, for instance, they might find themselves tossing and turning for hours on end.
A build up of strong emotions and frustration can lead to meltdowns or undesirable behavior (getting out of bed to do something else, for instance, or leaving the bedroom entirely).
Identifying common challenges and brainstorming potential solutions is an important part of teaching your child to sleep independently (to the best of their ability), which is what sleep training is all about.
This process shouldn’t just happen once; continuously encourage your child to communicate their experiences and find ways to tackle stressors head-on.
Sleep Train With Ease With The Cubby Sleep System
Children with special needs are forced to live in a world that hasn’t necessarily been designed for them or their unique challenges. As a result, navigating sleep training tools and resources meant for general audiences can leave lots of questions unanswered and needs unmet.
That’s where the Cubby Bed comes in. Specially crafted for children with special needs of all sort, the Cubby Bed and Cubby Sleep System are ideal solutions for any family looking to make bedtime into something fun and beneficial.
The Cubby Bed features a 360 degree enclosure and thorough padding to keep your little one safe from harm. It also includes a high-quality camera and microphone to allow you to keep an eye on them whenever you’d like.
Trouble falling or staying asleep? No problem - the Cubby Bed’s sensory devices can help create the perfect atmosphere for relaxation. No device combines comfort with functionality quite like the Cubby Bed!
You and your child deserve resources that will work for you, not the other way around. Let the Cubby Bed give you and your family the peace of mind you deserve (and your child the night’s sleep they need).