Restful slumber is crucial for helping kids grow and develop—recent studies have linked sleep to intellectual performance—yet statistics show 50% of children with ADHD also have sleep problems. And other studies have found children on the autism spectrum tend to have lower levels of melatonin, the naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate wakefulness and sleep cycles.
"Sleep is an often overlooked issue for kids with special needs," says Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., a child psychologist specializing in children with developmental issues and mother of four, "and it plays a huge role in learning, behavior, mood, attention, and overall functioning."
There are numerous sleep strategies for kids of all needs, many of which we explore below, but Dr. Beurkens says maintaining a consistent bedtime routine should be priority number one. "Allowing time for relaxing and winding down before bed goes a long way to helping children fall asleep and stay asleep," she says. "Calming activities like taking a bath, reading, massage, or listening to quiet music, are all helpful for promoting sleep."
Once you have the bedtime routine down, help your kid get even better shuteye with the following tried-and-true tips from experts and fellow parents alike. Of course, before you try any of them—especially those involving a sleep aid or essential oil—be sure to check with your child's doctor.
1. Play soothing sounds. "Use calming music or audiobooks to help your child fall asleep. You can even set the music to continuous play so that if your child wakes up in the night the calming familiar music is still playing and will help them fall back to sleep more easily." — Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., a child psychologist
2. Create a cozy environment. "Children who suffer from sleep anxiety can benefit from weighted blankets, which helps the brain release neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, ultimately improving mood and encouraging relaxation." — John DeGarmo, Ph.D., founder of the Foster Care Institute and father of six
3. Support with supplements. "Melatonin can be a very beneficial tool for supporting sleep in children. A typical starting dose is .3-.5mg given 45-60 minutes before bedtime. Some children on the autism spectrum or with ADHD may require larger doses in the 2-6mg range to support sleep. There's also valerian: an herb that research has shown can be very helpful for improving sleep in children with special needs, particularly ADHD and other neurological and cognitive disorders." [Parents should consult their child's pediatrician before choosing sleep supplements.] — Dr. Beurkens
4. Fuel up for the fast. "Most kids benefit from a healthy snack in the hour leading up to bed, as it helps them fall asleep and stay asleep more easily. Opt for a combination of protein, complex carbs, and healthy carbs—like an apple with nut butter or hummus with whole grain pita—to ensure your child doesn’t wake in the night due to low blood sugar. Avoid sugary snacks before bed, which can make it harder to fall asleep." — Dr. Beurkens
We posted on Facebook asking other parents for their bedtime advice and the response—from friends, colleagues, people we don't even know—was overwhelming. Below are some of our favorites, edited for anonymity. (Article co-author Jamie Pacton has successfully tried #5 and #7 on her 7-year-old son who has autism.)
5. Read the manual. "The book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, M.D., is my parenting/sleep Bible. It has some great tips and suggestions for kids of all ages. The basic premise is 'sleep begets sleep,' meaning the more a child sleeps, the more he will sleep. Seems counter-intuitive (flies in the face of the old, 'keep them up later so they sleep in!' theory) but it works. I followed this guideline for my three girls and they all sleep well."
6. Try natural remedies."I have two children who are autistic, one is a great sleeper and the other [3 years old] is not. We give him 5 mg of melatonin and rub the essential oil Vetiver around his belly button. He will still wake up at night (sometimes) and comes to our room but he goes right back to sleep. Before, he would usually sleep for 5 hours, wake up at midnight and stay awake until 5 a.m., and there were many times he was in hysterics. We tried so many things to help him—Vetiver was the last straw; if it didn't work we were going to our neurologist for medication. It worked. Like I said it's not perfect but his sleep has improved 90%. We are still striving for every night to be an all-nighter."
7. Have dinner earlier. "We stopped feeding my son so close to bedtime and it made a world of difference. We now space it 2 hours before."
8. Consider tummy troubles. "Gastrointestinal issues are a big cause of sleep disturbance for kids on the spectrum. It's worth visiting this link about GI issues and sleep."
9. Ask for a script. "We did all of the 'sleep hygiene' stuff, but eventually we had to use several medications to get even a 6 hour stretch of sleep. Melatonin, Clonodine, Trazadone, etc. for years. I have no regrets about this. It was the only path for our family. Now, at 15 years old, our son will just watch something on the iPad and then go back to sleep."
10. Stick to a schedule. "For the first 2 years, my daughter went on about 2-3 hours of sleep per night. That was it, no naps. After we implemented a strict bedtime routine paired with melatonin, things got significantly better. We had to monitor, though, when she was eating and drinking as well as her activities right before bed. At one point we saw a spike, and she was on Clonidine in addition to the melatonin, but eventually, we weaned her off. Now she does really well at 10 years old. Still wants her mama though!"
11. Offer calming distractions. "If my son gets up at midnight and is awake, he is 50/50 on cuddling and rubbing his arms and back. He's generally 'seeking.' If this doesn't work after a half-hour or more we cave and throw on a movie (which I'm sure just stimulates more but *we* can doze). If he's still up after a 90-minute movie, we put on the Baby First channel. They have late night lullabies and soft colors. He'll eventually drift."
12. Keep a journal. "My 11-year-old son has Asperger's and ADHD, and sometimes he will be awake for 24 hours at a time. During one episode, he was awake 40 hours. I've kept detailed notes over the years and there is no rhyme or reason as to why his bedtime meds work one night and not the next. His routine is rarely disturbed. Some nights he's beside himself and begging for sleep. Those are the hardest. Other nights he's happy but just awake. I'm thankful when he's happy and not desperate for sleep even though I am desperate for sleep."
Obviously, there's a mix of tips here—pick and choose what you think might work best for your child. Wishing you all a good night's sleep!