9 Sleep Tips for Kids with Special Needs—From Real Parents

Sleep—or the lack of it—was on my mind last week when I wrote about a study that connected sleep to intellectual performance. When I posted the blog on Facebook, seeking advice, the response was overwhelming. Other parents, friends, and people I don't even know replied. Here are some tips I got for helping kids—especially those with autism and other special needs—get some sleep.

I'm including the original Facebook posts here, edited for anonymity, so you can read the context along with the advice. I've already tried #1 and #3, and Liam, my 7-year-old with autism, has slept through the night three times this week! Of course, before you try any of these tips—especially those involving a sleep aid or essential oil—be sure to check with your child's doctor.

  1. "Read the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. It 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."
  2. "I have two autistic children, one is a great sleeper and the other is not. We give him 5 mg of melatonin and rub an essential oil called 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. He would usually sleep for five hours, wake up at midnight and stay awake until 5a.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. He will be 4 in July."
  3. "We stopped feeding my son so close to bedtime and it made a world of difference. We now space it 2 hours before."
  4. "Definitely a big cause of sleep disturbance for kids on the spectrum is Gastrointestinal issues. It's worth visiting this link about GI issues and sleep."
  5. "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."
  6. "For the first 2 years my daughter went on about 2-3 hours of sleep per night. That was it, no naps. After a strict bedtime routine paired with Melatonin was implemented 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 ♡"
  7. "My son has Asperger's and ADHD, and he's awake right now at 4:23am. We are at about 24 hours now. During one episode in May, he was awake 40 hours. He's 11 years old now. I don't think it happens more often than before. It just seems like it because I'm getting older! 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. Tonight is one of the nights where 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. He has a fun day camp today. Should be interesting..."
  8. "If my son gets up at midnight and is awake he is 50/50 on cuddling and rubbing his arms/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 1hr 20ish min movie, we put the Baby First channel on. They have late night lullabies and soft colors. He'll eventually drift."
  9. "Perhaps you focusing too much on the symptom and not the cause? Can the time awake somehow shape the time in sleep? I have found that shifting the focus from forcing myself to sleep longer/better to forcing myself to enhance my awake time (to be more "awake"?) has made a world of difference."

Obviously, there's a mix of tips here—from reading sleep guides, to over-the-counter meds, to modifying daily activities, to intense, prescription drugs—and I'm picking and choosing what might work best for my child. Thanks to all who contributed—and, although I'm still figuring out Liam's sleep patterns, I feel much less alone in my worry and exhaustion. Wishing you all a good night's sleep!

Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam and Eliot. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton

Image "Cute Mother and Baby Sleeping in Bed" via Shutterstock

Fred and Jeanette have 18-month-old twin boys who have never slept through the night and frequently end up in their parents' bed. It's the baby sleep whisperer to the rescue!

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