Helping Children with Special Needs – and Their Parents – Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

Getting a good night’s sleep is important to maintaining good health, but many of us have challenges when it comes to sleeping. Sleep problems can be especially common and troublesome for families who have children with developmental disabilities. And if a child is having trouble sleeping, the quality of sleep can decline for the entire family.
The good news is that this is not something families have to just live with. Sleep problems can be helped. If a child is not falling asleep easily, waking in the middle of the night, or waking too early, and you wish to remedy these issues, there are steps you can take to improve quality of sleep.
First, you need to ensure your expectations match your child’s sleep requirements. Make sure you do not put your child to bed unless s/he is tired. If necessary, start by putting him or her to bed an hour later and slowly move his or her bedtime to an earlier time in small increments.

Additional steps you can take to help your child fall asleep and stay asleep include:

  • avoiding late-in-the-day foods or drinks that have a lot of sugar and/or caffeine;

  • not providing attention if the child does awake from bed, and then quietly putting him or her back;

  • using a high quality, digital noisemaker that makes “white noise;”

  • keeping the bedroom at a cooler temperature; and

  • eliminating the availability of fun toys.

Next, create a schedule prior to bedtime that goes from more active to less active, more fun to less fun, and more light to less light. For example, activities involving screens (iPad, TV) should be earliest on the schedule and should end an hour before bedtime.  Children can do their evening/bedtime chores as the light fades (putting away toys, getting into PJs, brushing teeth). Reading a book in bed or engaging in some other passive activity (fun, but not too stimulating) is great for winding down at the very end of the night. You can individualize these activities to suit your family, as long as the same fading of stimulation and activity is present.
Your son or daughter should be able to fall asleep by himself or herself, so don’t stay in the bedroom and wait for him or her to fall asleep. This encourages your child to be independent in going to sleep and will increase the likelihood they can put themselves back to sleep if they wake in the night.
If you are having a hard time with children following directions at bedtime, try providing different amounts of fun within the schedule according to how well they do. For example, if your schedule includes reading a story, continue to include story time in the schedule if there is poor behavior; but read for a shorter time and provide less attention during that time. You can also practice following directions during the day with easier tasks, and then give your child a lot of praise for successfully following directions.
If your child is still waking and getting up in the night, you have a number of options. One is offering a “bedtime pass” that can be used once per night for something within reason (a glass of milk, a hug), or can be turned in the next morning for something better (a favorite breakfast, a special activity, etc.). You can also conduct periodic check-ins and fade those out (check in one minute after bedtime, two minutes later, four minutes after that, etc., until your child is asleep).
By having a plan, making some changes in the bedtime routine, modifying the bedroom environment, and being patient and persistent, the chances are good that you will be able to help your child – and the rest of your family – get a good night’s sleep. If you need additional assistance, you may want to contact a local behavior analyst.
 By Sarah Helm, M.A., LABA, BCBA

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, and our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit