Last updated on September 13th, 2021

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

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Sleep for Kids with Special Needs — 4 Huge Benefits

Parents know that sleep for kids with special needs is sometimes hard to come by. Having a more well-rested child will always make life a little smoother. Consider these four benefits for you and your special needs child:

  • Better moods
  • More open to learning
  • Awake time is higher quality
  • Peaceful time for everyone

special needs sleep

Your Child will be in a Better Mood with Sleep

Neuroscience researchers have shown that the human mind does a lot of work when we sleep. When our kids don’t get enough sleep, their minds don’t get to do all of their important work overnight. A recent study also showed that the mind actually processes things differently when a person is well-rested versus tired. This leads to different emotional reactions when presented with positive, neutral and negative pictures.

The researchers list “impaired emotional control” as a direct result of a lack of sleep. A 2012 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that, when sleep was longer, there was “a significant improvement in alertness and emotional regulation”. Shorter sleep times produced “opposite effects.” (read the entire study here)

Research on this topic shows that our emotions are much more even-keeled when we are better rested. Once they are on a better sleep schedule, children are much more calm with change and transitions. They’re much more open to problem-solving, prompting and support when things don’t go as planned. This goes for most children, with or without special needs.

Wondering how to get that sleep for kids with special needs?
Read: It’s Never Too Late: Get Bedtime Back on Track for Your Child with Special Needs

Well-Rested Children Learn Better

Just like with our emotions, our kids’ brains are able to assemble information they take in daily when they sleep more. Think of this process as organizing all of the information they experience – with all of their senses all day long – into the virtual file cabinets in their brains.

special needs sleep
Just like with our emotions, research shows that our kids’ brains are able to put together all of the information they take in every day when they have more sleep.

These mental file cabinets can then be opened to access these bits of knowledge again any time our kids come across a particular subject, or a similar one, in future days, months and even years. Without the proper time for our kids’ brains to file information away, they don’t operate at their highest cognitive level. Research has shown that even one hour less than the ideal sleep time for our kids can have negative impacts on their short- and long-term memory, and even their math fluency in school.

Caregivers and teachers report children being more alert, and more ready to learn once they are resting well.

Do you have a child with Special Needs?

We have a gentle sleep workbook just for your family.

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Time Awake will be Better Quality

When a child is finally sleeping well, parents get more “quality time” with their children. Instead of ‘let’s just get through this minute/hour/day’, they can enjoy their kids.

Everyone wants to live in one of those idyllic pictures of moms sitting next to kids, relaxing and enjoying a snack, book, or game together, with everyone smiling. More sleep will bring this kind of calm.

Sometimes kids with special needs are so busy all day. With medical appointments, school, and therapies, that they feel as though they need to spend quality time with their child once everything is done for the day. Often this is between 7 and 9pm – and bedtime starts after that.

Is back to school sleep giving you nightmares?
Read: Back-To-School Routines for your Special Needs Child with Checklists

When we delve below the surface and talk through how “quality” that time of day actually is, many parents say that their children cry a lot in the evening, have trouble playing well with siblings or even parents at this time, and many times this window of the day includes a movie or TV show before bedtime starts.

Often, the best solution is an earlier bedtime. While this means that evening awake time has been shortened, at the end of the process, most of the families say that the times when their children are awake are much more “quality” than they have ever had before!

One mom even said, “All at once, he is happy, sleeping, and manageable!” – factors which made a huge, positive impact on the family’s life together. Another mom mentioned that 12 hours of quality time awake, filled with happiness, smiles, and laughter, is so much better than 14 hours of difficult time spent with her son in frustration with her, or with his other family members. The positive emotional impact is undeniable for so many families, especially those with kids with special needs.

The Entire Family Benefits when Everyone Sleeps

All family members get the gift of more peace once children are back on track with their sleep. Some parents are amazed at what a difference it makes to simply be able to sit down with their spouse and enjoy a bite to eat after everyone is asleep before 8:30pm, or even a favorite show on Netflix on a weeknight! Amazing!

special needs sleepWorking hard to achieve sleep for kids with special needs isn’t something that only selfish parents do. Parents realize that the entire day is easier and smoother for everyone once positive sleep patterns and routines are well-established. Sleep will dissipate conflict for a more peaceful home.

Consistent and supportive sleep is a WIN-WIN for everyone in your family!

Need help sleep coaching your child with special needs?
Get a 5-point checklist, here.


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!