Pencil drawing of a child sleeping
The drawing is by John Vanderpoel

Sleep helps us learn well, behave well, feel well and stay well. Many children with neurodevelopmental disabilities [NDD] already struggle with learning, behavior and health. For them, sleep is particularly important. Children with NDD who sleep poorly have more seizures; take more medication; and have more problems with learning and behavior at school. [James Jan et al, “Sleep Hygiene for Children with Neurodevelopmental Disabilities,” Pediatrics 122: 1343-1350, 2008].

Though sleep problems are more common in children with NDD, there is “nearly complete absence of research” on the subject. In 2008, a group of experts recognized this and came together for the “first paper” on this topic. [cited above]

The experts raised concerns too about the parents of children with NDD. When children are up at night, so is everyone else. Parents of children with NDD are often very sleep deprived and have poorer health later in life. However, less than half of those parents talk to their doctors about sleep. This may be because parents of children with
NDD, especially children with night seizures or wandering, often sleep beside their children and may worry that their doctors will disapprove.

And what would the doctor recommend anyway? That all children need:

  • a bedtime routine that is regular and relaxing; and
  • a bedroom that is safe, quiet, cool, and dark

How does that advice apply to children with NDD? The experts recommend:

  • A very regular bedtime—many children with
    NDD cannot tolerate more than a one-hour difference between their weekdays vs. weekend bedtime.
  • A relaxing routine—children with
    NDD may not find typical bedtime activities relaxing. Children with autism may find baths upsetting, not soothing. The choice of bedtime stories may require extra thought. Reach Out and Read has a PDF about reading to children with
    NDD at: Reading to Children with Disabilities
  • A safe bedroom—some children with
    NDDs may be awake during the night and get into mischief or danger. Doctors might suggest a “posey bed” that has zippered netting to keep the child safely in bed. Parents of children with seizure disorders may want to ask about safety pillows and monitor systems.
  • A soothing space—children with NDD who are particularly sensitive to sound may benefit from white-noise machines. Those who have difficulty keeping a steady body temperature do well with ‘honeycomb’ sheets or pajamas made from special fabrics. Children with low vision may sleep better in a room darkened by ‘black out’ curtains, while others may be too anxious to sleep without a nightlight. Avoiding “blue light” from computer screens and TVs seems important for most children. Other adjustments to the type of lighting may also be helpful.

More honest conversations and more research is needed so everyone can enjoy a good night’s sleep.

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