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Emma Sterland
BY Emma Sterland

30 Tips to a Good Night’s Sleep for your Child with Special Needs

Children and adults with special needs are particularly prone to sleep problems, which can take its toll on the whole family. If your child isn’t getting enough sleep, it can impact on their mood and behavior … not to mention yours!

The following tips for a good night’s sleep have been contributed to Scope by parents of children with special needs. We hope you will find them useful, and please feel free to add your own!

You may also like: A Special Needs Guide to Bedtime

1. Make Space in Your Room

We put a futon at the end of our bed, so if our son wakes in the night he can come & sleep on it without waking us up. Knowing that he doesn’t have to sleep in a room on his own is enough to resolve his anxiety & allow him to sleep soundly

2. You Can Ring my Bell

When my son got a bit too grown up for a baby monitor, but still needed help sometimes at night, I got him a wireless doorbell to use to call me.

3. Body Pillow

My son has been sleeping better since we got him a long body pillow.  Squeezing it helps him to feel secure.

4. Two Sheets are Better than One!

I put two waterproof sheets on, so when my son wets the bed, I can gently peel the sheet away without making him get up – so he goes back to sleep more easily!

5. Use Hops

Hops, available from home brew shops, are a good herbal sleeping aid. They can be made into little pillows or left in the room out of reach.  Unlike spike lavender (Lavandula latifolia) it is suitable to use for people with epilepsy

6. Gro Clock

We use a gro clock which uses simple, light-up pictures of a sun and star to differentiate between day and night. You set the times for the pictures to change – its a very useful, visual way for a person to know when it is time to go to bed & get up.  Also comes with a simple story that reinforces the importance of sleep!

7. Night Positioning

Whenever possible encourage your child to sleep on their back, as this is the least destructive position for them in the long term. Use a Safety Checklist to help you think through the possible risks of your child sleeping on their back.

8. Warm & Weighty Duvets

For the warmth of a duvet without the weight on feet and legs, make small bean bag cushions and put one on each corner at the end of the bed. You don’t get cold like you do with a bed cradle but you get the same benefit.

9. Sleep Tight

We had 12 years of Andrew waking during the night.  A health professional suggested we wrap a quilt cover over the bed and tuck it in tightly either side under the mattress, so his bedding doesn’t come off, and he feels snug and tightly tucked in. It worked instantly, and he has slept better ever since.

10. Back to Front

Put all-in-one sleep suits on back to front to stop diaper escapologists/ diggers at night.

11. Night Wanderers 

My daughter wanders during the night, and has set the burglar alarm off many times. We bought a 99p plastic door hook to go over the top of her door and put a mobile that jangles on it. It has never failed us. We use this in conjunction with a baby alarm. Much better than the expensive laser equipment we tried, which went off every time she moved her duvet!

12. Light Box

We got our 13 year old son with SLD a light box to help with his disturbed sleep. It works by regulating his circadin rhythms. He has a dose of very bright light in the morning for 30 mins and is not allowed to snooze during the day. There has been a definite improvement in his sleeping patterns and moods so I would recommend it to other sleep deprived parents!

13. Sleep Sac

If your children toss and turn a lot, which means blankets don’t stay on, a sleep sac is invaluable. You may want to continue using one well after the usual age as it keeps them warm and helps avoid chest infections. You can get big ones for children up to 6 years from www.gro.co.uk

14. Buying a Cot

Get a nice cot. Our daughter stayed in hers until she was almost 4 so it’s worth having something very practical and ok to look at. It’s now converted to a bed and I expect we’ll get another couple of years out of it.

15. Night Help

For a few full night sleeps a week for yourself there is always the option of taking in a lodger at reduced rent on the basis they will work three nights a week to look after the person you are caring for while you get a full night’s sleep.

16. Tucking in Tight

My daughter can’t sleep if her duvet falls off, but is unable to pull it back on herself, which meant endless trips in the night to cover her up. I sewed pieces of sheet to each side of her duvet cover and now tuck these in when she goes to bed, the duvet stays in place with enough space for her to still move.

17. Home & Away

I keep a lavendar sachet inside my sons pillow case so that whenever he goes to respite his bedsheets smell the same as at home. I found it helps him to settle and I think it comforts him when he is away from home at night.

18. Towels & Teddy Bears for Support

When positioning your child at night, have a look in the airing cupboard – spare cushions, pillows, towels and teddy bears will often do a great job of supporting your child in bed.

19. Practice Lying Positions During the Day

Remember that children spend on average three times longer in bed than they do in school – getting their position right at night is a priority. Practice different lying positions during the day – sleep systems don’t have to be slept in!

20. Take Turns

Night time parental turn taking. We found that it is important for at least one of us to get a full night’s sleep. We do not share getting up during the night, rather we take night duty turns.

21. Tape Your Own Voice

I taped myself reading several of Beth’s favourite stories, so she could listen to my voice after I had left her bedroom.

22. Books on CD

We play book CD’s at bedtime. Anne Rachlin’s stories to classical music are very successful. John also loves Ringo Starr reading Thomas the Tank engine stories.

23. Nap Time

Keep any naps during the day short and not too near bedtime. It should become part of a routine and as early on in the afternoon as possible.

24. Make it Familiar

Ben behaves differently in respite care when he is trying to get to sleep. Now he takes his own pillow or at least a pillowcase I have washed at home. Washing powders have very different smells and it was the smell of the sheets and pillow that was putting him off sleeping. 

25. Star Struck

We stuck dozens of fluorescent stars and moons on Beth’s ceiling, and when the lights were off, the whole room was aglow. She would often lie mesmerized by the effect until she fell asleep.

26. Door Options

We have a stable door on Zoe’s bedroom to keep her safe so that when we check on her at night we don’t wake her up.

27. Projector

Max absolutely would not stay in bed. In the end we bought him a DVD projector and screen, which he now falls asleep to.

28. Love my room

Don’t use the bedroom as a place for punishment. You only want to have positive feelings associated with the bedroom.

29. Sensory Needs Bedwear

John wears tighter bed clothing (in fact we used a full protection UV swim suit) as the deep touch pressure enables him to settle and maintain sleep.

30. Masssage

For relaxation try a foot, hand, scalp or body massage (use massage oil mixed with a couple of drops of essential oils for the smell, essential oils are way too strong on their own), it’s very soothing and relaxing and great before bedtime. You can experiment with different pressures depending on sensory needs.


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Emma Sterland

Written on September 9, 2013 by:

Emma Sterland helps run the online community at Scope, a national UK-based disability charity, offering support for disabled people and their families. All the tips used in this post were contributed by members of the online community, and can be seen in the tips section of the community .
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