The Sleep Series: How much do our kids need?

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The Reality about Sleep & Special Needs Families

The prevalence of parent-reported sleep difficulties for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Development Disabilities and/or Intellectual Disabilities can be as high as 89%

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Although difficult to precisely measure due to age, nature of a child’s disability and type of sleep disturbance reported, it seems that it’s safe to say that perhaps a majority of children with a developmental disability have some kind of disturbance with sleep.

Our family struggled with sleep for many years. When our daughter didn’t sleep, neither did we – and I was always looking to find solutions to help. This series will explore the research and include interventions that our family has tried. I believe that through understanding and a combination of structured interventions, better sleep can be achieved.

Importance of Sleep

Sleep plays an important role in overall health and well-being.  Getting good quality sleep can improve your quality of life.  Oftentimes, the way you feel during waking hours is a reflection of how well you’ve slept.    Lack of sleep can impact how well a person is able to think, learn, work, and behave.

lack of Sleep: The Impact is real

Sleep doesn’t just impact mental health.  It also has an impact on physical health.  Deficiencies in sleep are linked to increased risk of obesity, heart disease, kidney disease and stroke.  Sleep also plays an important part in fighting off common infections.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that children and teens who don’t get enough sleep may feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings or feel sad and depressed.  For our kids with special needs, many who already struggle with impulsiveness among other behavioral challenges, can make them more profound.

Common tasks like driving can be significantly impaired by lack of sleep.  Estimates show that sleepiness of the driver is the cause of 100,000 car accidents annually. 

How much sleep should we get?

The amount of sleep needed does vary from person to person, but as a general guideline, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree to the following averages:

Infants aged 4-12 months 12-16 hours per day (including naps)
Children aged 1-2 years 11-14 hours per day (including naps)
Children aged 3-5 years 10-13 hours per day (including naps)
Children aged 6-12 years 9-12 hours per day
Teens aged 13-18 years 8-10 hours per day
Adults 18 years + 7 – 8 hours per day

Our Pediatrician was always quick to share this chart with us, but not so quick to offer interventions that helped. As a parent I understood the importance of sleep – the challenge was both getting my child to sleep, and subsequently staying asleep. Ultimately, we found a process that helped us achieve better sleep – 7 to 9 hours per night.

What helped our family

Observation & Tracking.  We found that observing and documenting for at least 2 weeks gave us information that we could later analyze. For example, we tracked food intake, observed transitions, and did a sleep log.

Work with a medical professional. We worked with medical professionals to rule out any underlying medical conditions such as sleep apnea or heartburn that can impact sleep.

Analyze. We reviewed the data collected during the observation and tracking step for trends: When did sleep go well and why? On days when sleep didn’t go well, were there any commonalities?

Make Change Manageable. Pick one or two small things to change, not everything at once. For example, we started by establishing a bed time routine, while gradually reducing blue light exposure.

Try Sleep Aides. Non-invasive sleep aides like music pillows or weighted blankets can help. We tried them one at a time so we could easily identify what worked and what didn’t.

Positive Reinforcement. Start a meaningful reward system, and start small – If your child gets up routinely at 4:30 am, create a system that rewards staying in bed until 4:35. Once that’s achieved, then 4:40, and so on. Baby steps.

Find support. Getting to better sleep is a process – it doesn’t happen overnight. Join a FB community with like-minded parents who can offer support and share ideas about what’s worked for them, or find resources on Pinterest boards.

Resources & Support
Download our FREE Roadmap to Better Sleep
Follow our Blog for resources like Foods that Support Sleep
Join our FB community: TIL Parent Connection
Follow us on Pinterest for more resources to support a Special Needs lifestyle

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