Sleep Deprivation in Children With Disabilities Affects the Entire Family

Tips for Improving the Sleep Environment

Joseph Hallock

The modern family faces a constant demand of squeezing as much into every day as possible, from kids in school with academic requirements and afterschool activities to parents caring and providing for their children, earning a living and staying socially active. Often the time we set aside for a good night’s sleep is sacrificed to complete our to-do lists. For families with children with special needs, the demands are even higher.

Everyone with children has experienced the sleep deprivation that comes with a newborn in the house. Eventually, children reach the point where they sleep through the night and things return to normal—at least until our memories get a little fuzzy and we begin to think, “That wasn’t so bad. Let’s have another one.”

Unfortunately, many children with cognitive and physical disabilities have constant difficulty sleeping, which leads to disturbed sleep for one or both parents and often for siblings, too.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine lists effects of sleep deprivation ranging from irritability and symptoms of depression to fatigue, high blood pressure and diabetes. In children, sleep deprivation can result in symptoms similar to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which can lead to disciplinary problems and misdiagnosis for other children in the family. Sleep deprivation also has a detrimental effect on our immune systems. The last thing individuals who are already facing medical complications associated with disabilities need is the increased risk of infection.

There are ways to foster a good night’s sleep, however, beginning with the sleep environment. Start with the room itself. Avoid bright, stimulating colors; use pastel or pale colors for the walls and also bedding. Install blinds or curtains that block light from outside the room, and if a nightlight is necessary, place it outside of sight from the bed. Light, particularly blue light, which is the same spectrum as daylight, can cause difficulties falling asleep or falling back to sleep.

Make sure that the room is quiet. If there is a noise problem that cannot be avoided, white noise such as a fan or CDs of white noise can help block out noise. Another helpful item to have in the room is a nursery thermometer. The thermostat down the hall might read 72 degrees, but that does not mean your child’s room is the same temperature. A room that is too hot or too cold will not be conducive to sleep.

Sticking to a bedtime routine is also important. Do not engage in lively playtime for an hour before bed. Maintain a regular bedtime. Try to go through the same routine every night, whether it involves bath time and/or reading a bedtime story. Attempt to keep the routine to a reasonable amount of time. If your child wakes in the middle of the night, he or she might need to go through the routine again to fall back to sleep. An hour-long routine will seem like two hours at 3 in the morning. To complete the routine, try to wake your child at the same time each morning.

One part of the sleep environment that is often overlooked is the bed itself. Your child’s bed should be safe and comfortable. The mattress should be firm but not hard. There should be no gaps or openings that pose a risk of entrapment. If your child has respiratory or reflux problems, use foam wedges or an adjustable bed to elevate the upper body. If your child is a restless sleeper and moves around the whole bed at night, consider safety rails to prevent him or her from falling out of bed.

The one comment that I hear most often from parents with children with special needs is that once children feel safe in their bed it becomes a place they want to be. With that comes a feeling of security that makes it possible for them to sleep through the night. When your child sleeps through the night, everyone in the house gets the good night’s sleep they all need to make it through hectic days.

Suggested Reading

Sleep Hygiene for Children With Neurodevelopmental Disabilities
A study on sleep disturbances in children with neurodevelopmental disabilities and the effects on quality of life of the child and entire family published in the journal Pediatrics

Sleep Difficulties in Children
Information on sleep issues for children with disabilities

About the Author

Joseph Hallock is the CEO of SleepSafe Beds, headquartered in Bassett, Va. He has been involved in manufacturing medical products for 11 years.