Last updated on April 5th, 2024

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Kim West, MSW, Mom of 2, creator of The Sleep Lady Shuffle

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It’s Never Too Late: Get Bedtime Back on Track for Your Child with Special Needs

For most of us, bedtime with babies and toddlers can be trying. Between eating, school work, bedtime routines, and general hustling around, things can get derailed quickly. As much as we may have prepared and tried to organize our children’s schedules, sometimes we find ourselves without a calm and early enough bedtime routine. Fear not! If you’re one of the many parents with a child with special needs who feels as though you can’t get bedtime back on track, this post is for you. Learn about:

  • Building in time
  • Guided imagery and mindfulness
  • Deep pressure massage
  • Sleep manners chart

special needs

Build in Time

It’s easier said than done to have a relaxing bedtime routine. Your evening list includes cooking dinner, preparing lunches, getting through frustrating homework, sibling conflicts, and brushing teeth battles — just to mention a few.

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Review your current schedule and see if you can backtrack your afternoon and evening time to make room for an extra fifteen minutes before your child needs to be in bed, with lights out. Perhaps there are some things on your to-do list that you could do after your child is asleep to provide that extra 15-20 minutes of “unwind time” before turning off the lights. This can make a huge difference for your child with special needs in their state of regulation and emotion while going to bed. Feeling rushed and stressed right before bed makes it more difficult to fall asleep — for our children and for us too!

Backtrack from the ideal time you wish to turn off your child’s lights. If that time is 8 pm for your child, and you usually give them 10 minutes of quiet play or reading time before they turn off the lights, then you need to block off 7:30-7:45 in your daily schedule as “unwind time”.

Want to know your child’s perfect schedule?
Read: Sample Schedules: Sleep and Naps From 6 Months to Preschool

Guided Imagery + Mindfulness Helps Children with Special Needs

Help your child practice strategies around mindfulness so that she can learn to move to a more peaceful place in her mind and body independently. This works well with all children, and especially children with special needs.

One great way to do this is by practicing mindfulness through some kid-friendly apps. Here are a few of my favorites:

Breathing Bubbles: This app helps kids relax and take things slowly, while also identifying their feelings. Available for Apple and Android.
Mindfulness for Children: This app provides your child with guided imagery and mindfulness exercises. Available for Apple and Android.
Headspace: This app is great for you and your child with adult- and kid-focused meditations. Available for Apple and Android.

If you have younger kids, try:

Breathe, Think, Do with Sesame: This is a great app for any time of day to work on problem-solving skills and self-regulation. The Sesame characters help keep kids engaged. Available for Apple and Android.
Daniel Tiger’s Grr-ific Feelings: Kids can sing along and practice calming techniques with Daniel. Available for Apple and Android.

Deep Pressure and Massage

Practicing regular massage and deep pressure activities can help your child feel calmer and be more in touch with his body. If your child works with an occupational therapist in a clinic, at home, or in school, be sure to check in with him/her. Ask about specific activities that are calming for your child that you can bring into the bedtime routine. Every child reacts differently to various sensory experiences, so it is important to find a calming sensory ritual that works for your child.

There are a few great online videos to walk you through deep pressure and calming sensory exercises. If your child doesn’t work with an occupational therapist, here are some great resources to check out:

“Fun Deep Pressure Sensory Activity” from Angie Voss, OTR, author of A Sensory Life
“Sensory Input Techniques to Calm and Focus Your Child” from Lynne Jackson at Connected Families
“Row your Boat Sensory Activity” from Claire Heffron at The Inspired Treehouse

special needs

Make a Sleep Manners Chart

The Sleep Manners Chart is a great tool to lead children through the expectations at bedtime, as well as the overnight and early morning hours. The chart is especially helpful for children with special needs because it can include visuals of your child going through a routine step, or performing the positive behavior outlined on the chart. This helps your child to understand what it is you are asking of him. It also helps you take a step back from conflict. You can say, “the chart says you need to stay in bed when you wake up instead of coming to mommy and daddy” vs. “I told you not to get out of your bed and to stay in your room. Why can’t you listen?”. This helps to move the bedtime struggle away from “mommy vs. child” to your child working towards an objective set of manners.

Want to read more great advice on sleep for your child with special needs?
Read: Sleep for Kids with Special Needs — 4 Huge Benefits

Keep it Simple

The best way to incorporate a chart is to keep it simple. Select three to four manners depending on your child’s age and level of understanding. Keep them as clear and concise as possible, such as “Put myself to sleep without Mommy or Daddy laying down with you” or “Put myself back to sleep without Mommy or Daddy laying down with you” and “Stay in bed quietly until the wakeup light comes on”.

If your child follows the manner, then place a star, check, smiley face, or even sticker in the allotted box. If he doesn’t display the manner, then tell your child “we” will try again that night. You can link the chart to a bigger incentive like a trip to the ice cream store with you. Often, simply receiving the positive feedback of the star or sticker is enough to help your child know what to do, and help them feel great about themselves.

Introduce the Sleep Manner Chart to your child during the day, not right before bedtime. Make it a neutral, quick conversation of something he’ll see tonight at bedtime in his room. Go over the manners, take pictures of him pretending to do each manner if you haven’t already, and ask if he has any questions. Review the chart in the morning over breakfast. Offer praise for the behavior you want to see more of and discuss briefly the behaviors that need more “practice”.

Author: Kim West, MSW, Mom of 2, creator of The Sleep Lady Shuffle

My name is Kim West, and I’m the mother of two beautiful girls, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 21 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. My sleep journey began when I started experimenting with gently shaping my daughter’s sleep by not following the conventional wisdom at the time. After having success (and then more success with my second daughter!), I began helping family and friends and my step-by-step method spread like wildfire, exactly like an excellent night of sleep for a tired parent should!