Special needs and the maze of sleep issues! How to navigate?

Did you know with special needs you have sleep issues lurking as a co-morbidity?  Yes, while a parent/caregiver is so soaked up dealing with other delays their child has, it seems inevitable to glide over or just simple live through the sleep disturbances your child is presenting.

In the vast schema of things like speech, adaptive milestones, I was exhausted to look at sleep as a separate issue to deal with.  My son with ASD had both – delayed sleep onset and sleep awakenings.  After taking hours to fall asleep, he would wake up at random times and stay awake as if he was never tired at all.  You know what could follow this pattern- it disrupted our day, therapy schedules, behavior issues, stereotypy got augmented and there was a general sense of trauma all the time.  So spotting sleep problems in children and making them a priority to fix are two things every parent should focus on to stay on path of recovery!

Is your kid sleeping well?

Sleep hours

Source:- https://www.healthychildren.org/
Childhood sleep guidelines – American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM)

Some of the common sleep problems, watch out for them:

Problems falling asleep, staying asleep, random waking including early morning waking, sleep apnea.

Insomnia and Autism.

We will look at some aspects in dealing with such sleep disruptions specifically with kids that have special needs.  One has to comb into several aspects such as behavioral, sensory, natural health supplements and medicines to gain benefits.


The first thing to do is to

— Have a consistent bedtime routine both on weekdays and weekends.  Use visual schedule, written prompts, picture schedule- all or some to set the sleep routine.
— Monitor and maintain screen time to the recommended AAC hours and turn it of at least 40 minutes prior to sleep.  Screentimes = overstimulation, which serves as a trigger to hyperactivity and tantrums leading to delayed bedtimes.
–Maintain a sleep log. Write down things, overtime a pattern helps you to fix anxiety and problem behaviors by discussing it with specialists.

Health supplements:

This is always a step to follow, better than medicines that may have sideeffects.  Plus supplements are not habit forming start with iron supplements, the one I can recommend is black strap molasses, good source of iron, potassium and calcium. This acts as a natural sleep aid—When taken at bedtime, the calcium and magnesium help the body relax and promote restful sleep.  This syrup personally helped our situation a lot, it made my child’s routine a lot predictable and his night waking tapered down.


Magnesium cream or butter: Since the child may/may not comply to taking tablets(sometimes a sensory issue).  Try a magnesium lotion/cream apply generously on neck, shoulders and feet.  Magnesium is known to relax hyperactive muscles and it definitely helps tackle sleep a bit.

Sensory needs:

Sleep can be totally irritating challenge if your child has sensory processing disorder.  My son has been extremely sensitive to temperature.  My sleep log let me know that all his wakings had some auditory disturbance and mostly cold temperature past midnight as a trigger.  No matter how you control the thermostat a slight dip in external temperature was enough to wake him up.  I have researched and tried so many products over time.  He sought warm temperatures much warmer than any of us preferred!

Sleep blankets did not help, as he never kept them on.   I started waking up in between to adjust thermostat, however it was not helping enough.  We could not keep a fan on, as it would get colder past midnight, if left on.  It was becoming difficult to manage temperature change in a practical way across seasons to suit his heightened needs.

That is when I  found a product that functions as a cooler, heater and humidifier, so basically an all rounder for us!

Frigidaire Evaporative 2 in 1 Air Cooler and Heater, 373 CFM

CoolerCooler tray

This  is a mobile cooler which is a huge plus to plug it anywhere as needed.  True to its promise, it is quiet and just pleasant to use at night.  Just add distilled water and turn it on, it works well for a room up to 250 sqft.  Use it in areas that are hot and dry and it leaves the room humid maintaining a steady cozy temperature(not extremely cold, just the way we need).  There are two oscillation modes horizontal and vertical blades and they function very silently to effectively achieve the cooling/heating functionality.  With auto shut off feature at 1,2,4 and 8 hours you are all set to control the ambience.

Reasons you should consider this device
a)Versatility(functions as a heater & cooler with some humidifying properties).
b)Discreet in operation and energy efficient.
c) Convenience with mobility and remote as a offering.

Up next is a fan that you will not know is on or off, I mean it is so discreet.

Honeywell Quiet Set Tower Fan:

Neat and super quiet, does not take up space.  Oscillates well, stands at optimum height for your bed with specific modes 8 in total for cooling functionality.


Cools well on low settings, autoshut off at 1,4 and 8 hours.   Remote offers the much needed convenience.  Just leave it on a specific setting, if low you don’t even have to bother to turn it off.  From gentle circulation needs to hot flashes– it has got you covered.  If you have a child with auditory sensitivity you cannot miss the preciousness of such features!

Black out curtains are a must- Consider having these you cannot go wrong by managing your room be dark way past sunrise(especially during warmer months when nights are short).  Also the light creeping in through blinds acts as a visual stim for some kids, so do not take a chance on this one.

Sound machine will work like a charm:  To deal with auditory sensitivity, you may need to establish a rhythm and blank out other sounds.  Start with a baby shusher and invest in a good sound machine eventually.  Here are the two that I have used personally and worked well  for last 4-5 years. 

Medicines, you may need them!

You may also need to look at medicines at some point in time along with these sleep aids, if necessary.  Melatonin spray is often recommended by a pediatrician/specialist to ease out the kid into sleep.  Kids with ADHD have a hard time winding down despite aids and these are just some logical steps.
Long-term effects of melatonin not known yet, so proceed with all the information in hand.  We found that effects of melatonin do taper down and the dose has to be adjusted overtime as the body does not respond as it may once have.  I am always a proponent of pills as the last choice, so we did do melatonin sprays instead.  It has a tolerable after taste and not difficult to spray into a kid’s mouth.

When you have tried all/most of these depending on your situation, be sure to turn to your sleep log for patterns.  Set an appointment with a sleep clinic and look for advise into a sleep study and/or medication.

Please know medicines have their sideeffects and it may be possible that an already prescribed medicine for a co-morbidity like ADHD is interfering with the child’ sleep.   The stimulant medications often used to treat ADHD can make your child feel more awake and can make sleeping harder.   So you will be on a trial and error phase to figure out what works for your child.  Always maintain a log, it saves you lot of time and takes guesswork out of an exhausted parent.

Final thoughts: Getting a rested night of sleep will significantly improve the symptoms such as behavior, mood, stereotypy and overall health.   Try these methods that we have personally put to test and found success.   Your child and your life’s quality is more than that diagnosis.  Sleep is a necessity for survival and  not a choice; so fixing sleep issues should be one of your priorities.  Stay put and work with this multipronged approach on all dimensions such as behavioral, sensory, food and medicines to improve functional outcomes.

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8 thoughts on “Special needs and the maze of sleep issues! How to navigate?

  1. Rosita says:

    These are great suggestions. I have that same Fan. I didn’t know about the magnesium cream. I’ll have to check that out. I also have an air filter that is loud and helps with sleep. I like the shusher too. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  2. Evie says:

    Sleep is so important especially for kids. We have one who had sleep apnea and the pediatrician didn’t notice. Our dentist actually did! Getting his sleep under control helped so much with his temperament and behavior.

  3. musings says:

    Yes, our ped just kept saying, kids with special needs have sleep issues. Its not a big deal.

  4. Fiona says:

    Sleep is so important for kids – and adults – it’s useful to know that there are things out there than can help! Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. Vourneen says:

    I suffer from insomnia myself and I can’t imagine how difficult it is for those with special needs who also have sleep disorders. I find black out curtains and melatonin have really helped me when I go through a patch of insomnia. Great post, thanks for sharing!

  6. Corinne says:

    Great suggestions! I’m writing this at 1am after my baby’s third wakeup. He is not a good sleeper at al!

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