May 10, 2021

Sleep Training for Kids with Special Needs – It’s Possible!

Babies, Older Children, Toddlers

As a special needs parent, you have a lot on your plate.  You are a parent, teacher, therapist, chauffeur, nutritionist, lawyer, nurse, and more.  It’s all the more important that you are getting the rest you need to be the best parent for your child.

However, you’re reading this because (probably) your child is not a good sleeper.  And you’re beyond the point of exhaustion.

Your child may be starting their day at 2am, or may be waking you for hour long stretches at a time.

Perhaps your child is taking 2 or 3 hours just to get to sleep.

You know that your child has to get more rest, and you simply just want to see them at their best the next day.

Sleep is crucial for brain growth and development, yet often an ignored piece of the puzzle. Nighttime is a time for the brain to organize, restore, and solidify all the things learned over the day. For a child with any neurodevelopmental diagnosis, it’s even more important.

Sleep training is an incredible technique and one that is applicable for any child, any age, at basically any stage of development.

Most parents like you haven’t even been given this as an option, as most professionals don’t think your child is capable of learning and understanding the changes that need to be made.

But, you know your child is brilliant. You know your child is capable of a great many things.

sleep training with special needs

So, what should you keep in mind before sleep training your child with special needs?

Let’s face it — there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to changing sleep for the better.

Here are the top things to remember for increased success:

It may just take longer — and, that’s totally okay.

One of the most common questions that parents ask when getting started with sleep training is, “Will my child understand?” And, that’s a logical question.  Your child may not be able to move or speak like a child their age.

So how do you get that feedback?

Keep in mind that by following a consistent routine, and by following a new plan for independent sleep, you are creating understanding.

By being as black and white as possible, your child will learn what is to be expected faster than you think! The more consistent and structured you are, they’ll know what to expect and what’s expected of them going forward.

In addition, sleep training helps reteach habits around sleep.  The brain needs time to process and perfect these new routines. For some children with special needs that may mean their brain needs longer to organize this new information.

Give it time, and give it patience.  It will happen!  Your child has their own pace and we must always respect that.

Your child has additional needs to be met before bedtime.

First off, there is nothing special about needing sleep.  We all need sleep.

But, your child may benefit from additional “input” and “output” during the day to facilitate sleep at night.

Firstly, if your child has any increased sensitivities or is not perceiving things as they should, you want to make sure that they’re getting plenty of stimulation.

Often, extreme sleep disturbances happen when a certain sensory need is not being met. For example, children who seek pressure do great with massage or joint compressions in their bedtime routine.

If you can, incorporate more sensory play in your child’s day to satiate that need.

Also, you want to make sure that your child is getting plenty of physical activity. If your child has low mobility or is immobile, make sure they are getting as much time on their tummy as possible. This will burn far more energy than working on sitting or gross motor skills.

If your child is walking and running, getting outside for a walk is the ideal activity.  It not only burns off energy, but it regulates breathing, emotions and more.

If you suspect that your child does need more sensory input or motor activities, I strongly recommend asking your therapists to see what they recommend that you can incorporate at home.

There may be other things you want to avoid for a good night’s rest.

In addition to giving some of the things your child needs for good sleep, there may be other things that you want to avoid.

With regards to sensory needs, kids diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), autism, ADD/ADHD, can be too sensitive to screen exposure and sounds.

If your child has any sensory hypersensitivity, consider limiting the time on the tablet. Keeping it at 90 minutes total, and no screens 1 hour before bed, can help prevent that overstimulation and pave a smoother path to initiate sleep.

For some children, their sensitivity to sounds may be aggravated by the white noise machine.  If anything, it’s adding to the chaos they may be experiencing.

This blog gives parents more guidance on what to look for and how to address that auditory sensitivity.

Finally, making certain dietary changes can help as well.  Making sure your child has plenty of time to digest and process some of the foods that aggravate sleep should make their job easier at night.

Consider reducing and eliminating foods with sugar, high salt, dairy, and gluten after lunch time.  A happier tummy usually means a more peaceful night sleep.

Not all these changes are the easiest — but the payoff is huge!

Any sleep training program is a challenge.  There are so many changes that you and your child are learning together.  And, we all know that changing habits can be a challenge.  But, it often comes with great payoffs.

When we look back and see what we’ve done, there’s a big moment of pride — we actually stuck with it, and we’re (hopefully) all the better for it!

If your child with special needs has been struggling to get a good night’s rest, give them the chance to learn.  Sleep training is an excellent way to teach your child some independence and will pave a path for more independent skills down the line.

About the Author

sleep training special needs

Melissa Doman is a sleep consultant for special needs families who feel frustrated and overwhelmed by their child’s sleep problems.  They’ve had it with sleepless nights, anxiety, stress-filled days, and doctors who say their child’s sleep issues can’t be fixed.  Melissa helps kids sleep better and independently so parents can see their child grow, thrive, and use these sleep skills for years to come. Melissa Doman has a decade of experience teaching parents of children with a variety of diagnoses, and uses this knowledge to enhance her sleep training programs.


FB: @melissadomansleepconsulting

IG: @specialneedssleepcoach

sleep training with special needs