Sleep issues are highly prevalent in children with SEND. Some research suggests that over 80% of children with additional needs will experience a sleep issue so if you are having difficulties at night time you are not alone!
Parenting when you are chronically sleep deprived can be an enormous challenge. Sleep is vital to our wellbeing and sleep deprivation can impact on your physical, emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as that of your child.
Unfortunately when sleep issues do arise there is not a great deal of support available. Research suggests that a behavioural approach to sleep can be beneficial. A recent research project carried out by Sheffield Children’s Hospital, Sheffield City Council and The Children’s Sleep Charity found that on average children gained an additional 2.4 hours sleep per night when families used such an approach supported by Sleep Practitioners.
It is important to assess what may be causing the sleep issue in order to identify appropriate strategies. Often there are numerous causes which need to be explored these can include; sensory issues, hunger, discomfort, medication, pre-bedtime activities, bedroom environment, temperature regulation and many more things.
A bedtime routine is very important in order to support your child’s circadian rhythm or body clock. Going to bed at the same time each night helps our bodies to get into a pattern. It is also important to have a set wake up time each morning, even at weekends.
Some children need cues to support their understanding of night and day. It is useful to avoid language around dark and light and instead refer to night and day. If visual timetables are used in the day time it can be extremely useful to use them at bedtime too. You may also consider using a set piece of music each evening to indicate that bedtime is approaching.
We all sleep in cycles and partially awake during the night, sometimes we may simply check the clock and roll over and go back to sleep at other times we may get up to use the bathroom. Often children don’t know what time it is when they partially awake, using a lamp on a timer switch can be helpful and teaching ‘lamp off’ means sleep time and ‘lamp on’ means it is time to get up. There are a number of sleep training clocks on the market too that do a similar job.
In order to sleep well we need conditions to remain consistent throughout the night. It is worth considering if anything is changing from when your child falls asleep to when they wake. Common things that can cause night wakings include falling asleep watching television and then this being turned off. Or falling asleep with a parent next to them, only to wake during the night and find that they are alone. Try to create consistency at the start of the night that can be maintained throughout the night to support a good night’s sleep.
Naps can help younger children to sleep better at night, it is more difficult to get a sleep deprived child to sleep than a well rested child. As children get older the need for a nap reduces and sleeping during the day can have an impact on the amount of night time sleep required. School transport is a common place for napping so do check with escorts if your child has transport to school to make sure that your child isn’t having a power nap on the bus.
Diet can also play a role, what children eat during the day can impact on night time sleep. Avoiding sugary snacks and anything caffeinated is helpful. Calcium based food makes a good bedtime choice as well as low sugar cereal. Milk or water are ideal bedtime drinks.
Begin the bedtime routine an hour before sleep time. Dim the lights to help to produce melatonin which is the sleep hormone. Hand eye co-ordination activities are helpful to promote relaxation, things like colouring, jigsaws or building with bricks. Plan the activities in advance so that you are prepared. A bath half an hour bed may help some children to relax. Always give a warning about what is about to happen so that children feel prepared.
The bedroom environment should be around 18 degrees and not over stimulating. Consider your child’s sensory needs when choosing things like bedding, nightwear and curtains. Some children find total darkness disorientating so a night light that can be safely left on all night may be helpful.
If you are concerned about your child’s sleep speak to a healthcare professional to find out what support is available in your area.
The Children’s Sleep Charity offers online information about sleep and also support in areas where funding allows. To find out more about their work visit www.thechildrenssleepcharity.org.uk