sleep for special needs

No Meds, No Melatonin, No Problem! A Good Night’s Rest for Your Child with Special Needs

Many children with special needs struggle to sleep well at night. Common struggles that these children face are restless sleep, taking hours to fall asleep at night, extended nighttime wake-ups, muscle pain or discomfort, light sleep, or even skipping whole nights!

This is not only exhausting for the child, but for parents too! Chronic sleep deprivation affects your child’s ability to learn, grow, stay healthy, and makes it that much harder for parents to go to work, be a caretaker, and more.

The problem? When parents talk to their doctors and therapists about it, the only solution is melatonin or medication. These are only temporary solutions, and the jury is still out when it comes to the long term use of these supplements or prescriptions in children. Very often, parents come to me saying they’ve tried meds and melatonin. The sleep problems still persist, and parents are eager to get their child off these sleep aids.

The great news? Your child DOES NOT need heavy-duty medications. Your child WILL NOT be dependent on melatonin forever. Every child with special needs has the potential to learn how to sleep, and it boils down to some very simple and effective changes that can be made in your child’s life.

Start an iron-clad, no negotiations bedtime routine

Your child with special needs is desperate for a super black and white, no wiggle room bedtime routine. This teaches your child’s brain and body to anticipate sleep, making it easier for them to rest and settle at night.

This routine gives them the runway for developing their own ways to get to sleep. You’re literally programming the brain to fall asleep easier. Children with special needs crave routine. I recommend a bedtime routine that’s no longer than 30’ so that you prevent your child from getting too tired.

Get your child to bed early

If your child struggles to fall asleep easily, wakes up frequently at night, or for long stretches at night, an early bedtime is your best friend. When a child goes to sleep too late, it throws the area of the brain that dictates sleep totally out of whack. It can increase hyperactivity around bedtime, and throws your child’s body clock out of sync.

Take advantage of the early bedtime — it’s what Mother Nature wants for your child. Time and time again, I’ve seen kids have significantly better sleep when parents just do this alone. Ideal bedtime? No later than 8pm for kids 8 years and younger.

Encourage independence at bedtime

sleep for special needs
This one is a bit easier said than done. But, if you want to make significant changes to your child’s sleep they need the space to develop their own strategies to go to sleep.

The reason? If they are dependent on that patting, rocking, hand holding, etc. they are going to look for that help many times a night.

Think about it — if you fell asleep with your pillow and blanket to find them gone at 2am what would you do? Start looking for them ASAP! So, if your child needs any help from you to sleep at night, start getting them to sleep on their own. This will make the first two steps even more effective.

Whatever you do, no screen time before bedtime

If your child has any sensory issues, it’s best to avoid screens at least 1 hour before bed. The blue light from our electronic devices trick the brain into thinking it’s still daytime. This throws off the body clock and delays the natural dump of melatonin into the body, making it very difficult to settle.

Children who are too sensitive will feel this even more. If your child doesn’t see well, still avoid screens before bed. You want to send the message to the brain that light means awake, dark means time for bed.

Stick to wholesome foods closer to bedtime

Avoiding super processed, sugary, salty, preservative-heavy food after lunch is a great way to assure your child will sleep well at night. If these foods are eaten too close to bedtime, the stomach has to work overtime to get this junk out of the system, which can throw off your child’s rest. So, stick to healthy snacks, veggies, whole grains, and fruits closer to bedtime. These are easier on the stomach and contain the vitamins and minerals our body needs to rest well.

These recommendations have helped dozens and dozens of families to get the sleep they need successfully! To implement these changes is no easy task, and it’s not a quick fix. It takes several weeks of consistency and making sleep the priority — remember, it’s implementing habits for the whole household.

However, if you’re looking for lasting solutions without sleep aids, these are the most important steps you can take on that path to a great night’s rest. Your child with special needs can sleep great!

Melissa Doman is a certified sleep coach for kids with special needs. She has helped families around the world successfully sleep train their children with ASD, ADD, ADHD, SPD, PDD-NOS, Trisomy 21, cerebral palsy, Angelman Syndrome, and more. Melissa provides parents step-by-step, lasting sleep solutions for their child with special needs. To learn more, visit, or follow on Facebook and Instagram: @melissadomansleepconsulting

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