A bad night’s sleep affects the whole family, but have you considered how your child’s day time activities might be adjusted to help them sleep better at night? Here are a few straightforward tips from Antonia Chitty and Victoria Dawson, authors of Sleep and Your Special Needs Child, that might help your family. If your child struggles with change, as many children do, pick just one suggestion to introduce gradually, and see if it helps before moving onto the next one.
- Does your child nap? Children with special needs may continue to nap even past the age of two to three, but for some older children, naps can become a problem. According to the Children’s Sleep Charity, “Sometimes older children may take naps during the day that they don’t really need. This can mean that they do not sleep well at night because they simply are not tired. Keeping a sleep diary is helpful for noting the number of naps that a child has. If your child is at school or uses school transport it is useful to ask the staff whether your child is napping during the day or on the bus home. This helps to build up an accurate profile of the amount of sleep that your child is getting.” Remember, your child needs a certain amount of sleep, and a nap during the day means they will sleep less at night.
- Food can affect your child’s sleep. Make a food diary, noting down what they eat and drink and when. Once you have created your food diary, here are some suggestions that will help you test out changes that could help your child sleep:
- Swap sugary snacks for foods that your child can digest more slowly, and which provide less of a sugar rush
- Change sugary soft drinks for milk or water
- Change the time of your child’s last meal so they have time to digest it before bed
- If one food or group of foods affects your child’s behaviour, talk to the GP about a referral to a dietician. Don’t eliminate whole food groups from your child’s diet without professional advice as this can affect their growth and development
- Exercise is great for helping sleep, but some sorts of exercise have been shown to help more than others. One compared moderate-intensity exercise with high-intensity exercise. Only high-intensity exercise resulted in better slow-wave sleep.[i] So, for some children aerobic exercise, which raises the heart rate, may have positive effects on the different chemicals in the body that contribute to sleep. There are different benefits to other sorts of exercise: if your child is a live wire, you could think about exercise like yoga as a way to teach them to relax. Consider when your child exercises: afternoon and early evening exercise can help your child sleep. Exercise stimulates your child’s heart, muscles and brain, and raises their body temperature. Their body temperature then falls naturally as they are getting ready for bed which can help them drop off. One note of caution: vigorous exercise in the hours immediately before bed can make it h harder to fall asleep.
- Daylight and sleep. Exposure to light in the morning helps us all wake up, but some research has shown that morning light also helps you go to sleep. It acts by regulating the biological clock: exposure to light every morning ‘sets your clock’ for the day. The body is most responsive to sunlight between 6 and 8.30 am. Direct outdoor sunlight for around thirty minutes has the most effect, while indoor lighting has little effect. If your child doesn’t seem to have a strong internal body clock, try some outdoor play first thing, or walking to school if you can.
- Switching off at night. If your child has problems dropping off to sleep, remember that their daytime activities can affect this. TV and computers affect how your child sleeps. One study has found that computer game-playing results in significantly reduced amounts of slow-wave sleep. Television viewing reduced sleep efficiency significantly but did not affect sleep patterns.[ii] If your child is used to watching TV in their bedroom, test out using a story CD instead. Light from the TV can hinder the body’s efforts to produce melatonin, which aids sleep. Similarly, have a cut-off point for computer use: perhaps allow your child to use computer games or the computer before the evening meal, then get them to read or play board games after dinner. Try this for a week, add the results to your sleep diary and see if it helps them drop off.
Sleep and Your Special Needs Child is on offer at just under £9 at time of writing. It addresses sleep problems using a highly successful behavioural and cognitive approach to sleep management, and is the first book to explain these approaches in detail. The practical advice contained is invaluable for parents who want to feel more in control and more confident about tackling sleep issues in a way that is appropriate for their child.
[i] Dworak, Markus, Wiaterb, Alfred, Alferc, Dirk, Stephanc, Egon, Hollmannd, Wildor, Strüder, Heiko Klaus (2008), ‘Increased slow-wave sleep and reduced Stage 2 sleep in children depending on exercise intensity’, Sleep Medicine, Volume 9, Issue 3, March, Pages 266–72.
[ii] Dworak, Markus, Schierl, Thomas, Bruns, Thomas and Strüder, H.K. (2007), ‘Impact of Singular Excessive Computer Game and Television Exposure on Sleep Patterns and Memory Performance of School-aged Children’, Pediatrics, Vol. 120, No. 5, November 1, pp. 978–85, DOI: 10.1542/peds.2007-0476.