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Sleep Strategies for Children – The Perfect Bedtime Recipe

Sleep for children with developmental disabilities

Sleep is often touted as the holy grail of parenthood, but according to the journal Sleep, sleep deprivation can go on for a whopping six years after your child is born. And if you parent a child with a developmental disability, it probably comes as no surprise that you’re twice as likely to experience sleep problems.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, sleep is as important to our health as eating, drinking and breathing, and a lack of it can cause a myriad of physical and mental challenges. But when you have a baby or child who struggles with sleep, it can leave you feeling helpless.

Keen to find out more about how to tackle sleep problems in children with additional needs, we attended a talk by Helen Rutherford, a Sleep Practitioner at the Children’s Sleep Charity, talk at the Kidz to Adultz Middle Exhibition. She says that almost 80 percent of sleep problems can be tackled with a behavioural approach. This means that what we do and how we do it, and how consistently we do it, can make the difference between a night’s sleep or no sleep at all.

While you might be thinking ‘but I’ve tried everything and nothing works!’, here, we’ll be investigating five simple sleep strategies for you to try.

  1. Make sure you’re ready for the marathon ahead

How many times have you been determined to try a new sleep routine, only to find yourself on day three, tired, tearing your hair out and giving in? The key, Rutherford says, is making sure you’ve got enough fuel for the marathon ahead. 

‘Making sure you’ve got the energy and determination to be consistent for at least two weeks, is absolutely essential’ says Rutherford. ‘It takes at least this amount of time for a new sleep routine to become a child’s ‘norm’, so make it easier to start your journey when you know you can see it through. 

‘While not everyone has the ability to have two nights off parenting duties, having this couple of days off can help rejuvenate your mind and body, enabling you to take a more determined approach.’

2. Be consistent

When it comes to instilling a successful sleep routine, the need to be consistent has never been greater. So, if you co-parent, teamwork is key.

Rutherford said, ‘If you share bedtime duties, make sure you follow the same routine every night. It’s also easier to ensure you start your sleep routine over a period when you’re staying at home, because going away to the grandparents, for example, can make bedtime confusing for your child.’ 

3. Keep the environment the same

In most people, the sleep-wake cycle runs over 24 hours, and our biological clock tells us to sleep at night and wake in the morning. Every night, we go through several stages of sleep – beginning with light sleep, travelling through deep, replenishing sleep, and moving into REM sleep, when the brain is at its most active. Between each cycle, we experience a ‘partial waking’, which may only last a few seconds before we roll over and go back to sleep.

While many of us can easily roll over and go back to sleep, those who experience sleep disorders, sensory difficulties or anxiety, may find it difficult to drift back off when they have this partial waking. According to Rutherford, making sure the environment is the same as when you first put them to bed, can help them self-settle back to sleep.

‘Things that we might not even notice, such as the temperature being different, a nightlight being turned off, or even the door being shut when it was left open, can all make the difference. Likewise, if a child is used to you falling asleep next to them, waking up to an empty bed space can make them panic, and it doesn’t take long before they’re fully awake.

‘To prevent sensory distractions at night, using heavy curtains to block out the light, along with thick carpeting to muffle noises, which can make all the difference.’ 

4. Ban blue light an hour before bed

According to a survey by Censuswide, over 80% of children in the UK now have their own phone by the age of 12. By 10, 58% have their own tablets, and two-thirds of teenagers say they use these devices in the hour before they go to sleep. We’ve all heard that using screens before bed is bad for our sleep, but why?

It all comes down to how blue light affects the body’s production of the sleep hormone, melatonin. When the sun goes down and darkness appears, a tiny gland in our brain called the pineal gland starts making melatonin, which makes us tired and tells our body that it’s time for bed. If we use screens at nighttime, we confuse our brain – and instead of producing melatonin, our brain produces hormones that make us feel more awake and energetic.

Rutherford recommends removing all sources of blue light at least an hour before bed:

’For many children, especially those with additional needs, technology can provide a huge comfort. Removing their technology can cause anxiety, so rather than testing the ‘hand over’ near bedtime, I’d suggest testing it out a few times before you start even thinking about bedtime. By practicing your child giving you their tech early in the day, you avoid linking anxiety with bedtime, which can cause even more problems in the long run.’

5. Identify triggers

If your child has sensory processing differences, there could be a myriad of reasons why they aren’t sleeping properly. The only challenge is working out what they are.

It’s not always easy for children to articulate their feelings, but thinking outside the box might give you some surprising results. We asked parents to put together their epiphany moments. Here’s what they said.

  • ‘My son was terrible at sleeping until we eventually worked out that he felt the world around him was ‘too big and scary.’ Since we’ve put a canopy on his bed he’s slept much better and had far less anxiety at night.’
  • ‘My daughter always used to go to play with her toys in the blue spare room in our house. We always thought it was because there was more room in there, but we realised she actually likes the calming effect of the blue walls. Since we repainted her bedroom from hot pink to light blue, she’s slept far better.’
  • ‘My son has always slept really badly, particularly in his ‘big’ bed. We just couldn’t work out what was causing the night waking – until he became old enough to tell us the real reason. “Mum, my bed is so wibbly-wobbly and I can’t sleep”, he said. It had never even crossed my mind that he found the mattress uncomfortable! Since we’ve changed to a harder mattress, his sleep has improved massively.’
  • ‘We used to have neighbours who had a dog that barked all day and all night. Our daughter’s sleep was terrible, and we never knew why – until our neighbours (and the dog) moved, and our daughter’s sleeping miraculously improved! Because our daughter is sensitive to noise, the dog had been waking her up and causing anxiety in the night.’

Finding additional support with your child’s sleep

Sleep deprivation can have a serious impact on all aspects of health and wellbeing, and make you reach crisis point. Sometimes, having an external person to coach you through your family’s sleep challenges is a great way of helping you develop a new strategy to get more shut-eye. For more information on the Children’s Sleep Charity and how it can help your family, check out their website. 

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