Raising a child can be seriously hard work. However this can be even more so if your child has special needs.
Think of the hours, the commitment needed, the ambiguity of information, the stakes involved, and the endless, ever-evolving challenges that kids throw at us.
All those regular parenting challenges are present when you have a child with special needs, along with a few others thrown in on top. Sometimes those extra challenges are incidental. However, sometimes they’re significant. Sometimes monumental.
Helping a baby with special needs to learn independent sleep skills is no different. It comes with all of the regular hurdles. On most occasions a few more to boot. Kids with special needs (and their parents) still need quality sleep in order to thrive.
Although it’s not my specific area of expertise, I wanted to discuss some tips for working with babies with special needs.
Even though you may be dealing with specific issues in a special-needs child, there are a few universal truths when we’re trying to help develop some independent sleep skills.
Having your child on a predictable, consistent schedule is key. Creating and implementing a relaxing bedtime routine; and eliminating any sleep props that your child is dependent on in order to get to sleep; are the other pieces to the puzzle.
We also want to make sure baby’s getting plenty of physical activity. Plenty of daytime sunlight and mental stimulation as well. You can read more about those areas in my other blog posts.
Special needs or otherwise, the above are the cornerstones of great sleep.
Now these tips below are generalisations. Kids with special needs obviously vary greatly in their specific behaviours and pre-dispositions. However, as a general guideline, these would be the most applicable tips.
Make sure that any new expectations about your little one’s sleep and schedule are outlined and explained very, very clearly. Go over it as many times as you have to until you’re confident that your child has a grasp of what’s expected of them. Explain your reasoning as best you can also (age dependent). Your approach will depend on your little one’s age and preferred method of communication.
Putting something up on the wall that outlines the steps of the bedtime routine can be a big help with this. A cute cartoon of a child putting on their PJs, having a bath, reading stories, and so on, with a little checkbox for them to mark off when they finish that step, helps them understand what happens and in what order. Familiarity with that routine will help the brain know when to start winding things down. Melatonin production will also start to kick off.
You want to communicate to the best of your ability that this is the way things are done. Repetition and predictability are crucial to getting the message across. Which brings me to the next point…
Teaching a baby or toddler to sleep well overnight can come with a few nights of parental guilt. This often results in parents giving up on the process before any real change has had a chance to take effect.
Add a special needs-related challenge on top of that. It’s easy to understand how a parent could quickly feel overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing more confusing to a child than inconsistency. Remember, they’re still trying to get a grasp on how things work in the world. If things are handled one way on a given night but differently the next, it can be exceptionally confusing for them.
Making some slight tweaks to your approach might prove beneficial. However giving in and taking your child into bed with you because they’re being particularly fussy one night, and then standing your ground the next night, conveys a really confusing message.
Special needs children can be tremendously strong-willed and it may take more time, effort and dedication than other kids to change their behaviours. If you’re the parent of a special needs child, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but try to keep it in mind when you’re responding to them for the fifteenth time in a night.
Most of us are pretty particular about our sleep.
We like a certain pillow, we like to sleep in a specific position, we might like to have a glass of water handy. If someone suddenly told us that we needed to change all of that, we’d likely get a little frustrated for the first couple of nights, even if we knew it was going to benefit us in the long run.
When working with a baby or toddler with special needs, you can just imagine how difficult it must be for them to adjust to a new way of doing things.
They don’t necessarily understand the benefits of these changes. They’re tired and frustrated. They’re going to want someone to get things onto a familiar pattern, pronto.
Being woken up in the middle of the night is aggravating at the best of times. When it’s happening repeatedly, over weeks or months (even years for some) it’s very easy to lose your cool. Do your best to take some deep, calming breaths before you get up out of bed and keep in mind that this is tough for your child as well, and that you’re working towards a solution. It can be tiring, however things will get exponentially better over time if you stay on track. Try to keep that thought in the front of your mind when you’re feeling like giving up.
One thing I know for sure; you should never underestimate a child’s ability to do incredible things. They amaze us constantly with their ability to understand, adapt and interact.
As parents, we’re constantly awestruck at our little one’s development and progress. There’s no reason to think they can’t learn to sleep well if we provide them with the right guidance and support.
For personalised help to teach your little one to fall asleep independently, please reach out.