Getting your child to sleep can be a challenge for any parent, even more so when you have a child with special needs. Your child may have a harder time settling down at night, causing them (and you) to feel cranky and irritable the next day. Although it might seem that way in the small hours, you’re not alone. It’s actually pretty common for children with autism spectrum disorders (approximately 49-89%), ADHD (25-50%), and intellectual disabilities (34-86%) to experience sleep problems. In addition to general moodiness, lack of sleep can cause poor concentration, impaired functioning, and an exacerbation of symptoms in the daytime.

When parents or caregivers are kept awake because the child can’t sleep, issues such as marital discord, poor job performance, anxiety, and depression can arise. As you can see, missing out on shut-eye can have serious consequences for the whole family. That’s why creating an effective sleep routine is a top priority. Here are some strategies that have helped our kids get a better night’s sleep.

Start with Good Sleep Hygiene

If there’s little rhyme or reason to your child’s bedtime, it can make falling asleep more difficult. Try to set a strict, predictable routine of preparing for bed at a certain time, even if they don’t always get to sleep on schedule.

Stop meals at least two to three hours before, limit stimulating activities and screens, and do relaxing activities like bathing, reading, or listening to calming music. Also, create a soothing environment for sleep, such as lowering the temperature, dimming the lights, and making the bedroom comfortable.

Round out your routine by waking your child at the same time each morning. Keep in mind that it’s important that their weekday and weekend routines are similar. Following a set schedule helps your child learn to naturally sleep and wake on their own.

Have an “Active” Day

Keeping your child with special needs stimulated and active during the day can cause fatigue, which helps them sleep better at night. Schedule interesting physical activities throughout the day such as walks to the park and playing catch with the dog to help them get plenty of exercise. Just be sure to keep exercise earlier in the day, as evening exercise may be too stimulating.

Use Natural Sleep Aids

If you’d rather not add another medication to your child’s regimen, melatonin may be a good alternative. Some parents swear by it for helping their kid drift off easier without grogginess in the morning.

Other parents suggest using essential oils like vetiver and lavender to calm anxiety and promote sleepiness. The oils can be rubbed on the child’s tummy, feet, or neck— just be sure the oil you use is safe for skin contact. You may also diffuse the oils or place a few drops in your child’s bathwater prior to bedtime. Be sure to talk to your child’s doctor before using any natural supplements.

Get Further Testing

Some children with special needs struggle with sleep because there’s something happening behind the scenes that the parent isn’t aware of. One issue that is prevalent in kids with Down syndrome is obstructive sleep apnea, which may cause your child to wake up throughout the night or earlier than they’d like. Many kids with special needs also suffer from gastrointestinal problems that can complicate their sleep schedules. Mental illnesses like anxiety and depression can also affect your child’s sleep. See your pediatrician or a specialist if you suspect any of these underlying causes might be preventing your child from getting the sleep they need.

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