Sleep disorders occur in typically developing individuals, and they are probably even more common in individuals with developmental disabilities.

Sleep is an important activity of the developing brain. Although long under-appreciated, it is now known that sleep problems can cause difficulties with learning, concentrating, and regulating behavior. In addition to health problems, sleep problems are now being recognized as a common problem with real solutions that can make a significant difference. Sleep disorders occur in typically developing individuals, and they are probably even more common in individuals with developmental disabilities. Parents of children with developmental disabilities often recognize sleep problems as being one of their greatest concerns, in part due to the impact on the entire family.

The most common reasons parents seek a sleep specialist are to get help for their child to fall asleep, stay asleep, or improve the amount or quality of sleep.  One sign that a child is not getting enough sleep is that s/he is falling asleep during the day and may be having behavioral problems or irritability.  Other concerns that parents express in sleep clinic are snoring, sleepwalking, and unusual movements or behaviors at night.

A doctor with expertise in sleep disorders may diagnose conditions such as sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, or narcolepsy.  Many of these diagnoses require information from an overnight sleep study, or polysomnogram.  Sometimes medications are prescribed to improve a child’s sleep.

While some sleep problems can be diagnosed and treated medically, many have environmental and behavioral causes and solutions. The most common types of environmental or behavioral sleep problems encountered in children and adolescents include resistance towards going to bed, difficulty falling asleep, frequent nighttime awakenings, too much napping during the day, trouble going back to sleep after awakening, night terrors, sleep walking/talking and difficulty waking up in the morning.

Treatments for environmentally and behaviorally based sleep problems typically require careful examination and record keeping of daily habits and routines related to bedtime, activity schedules, electronics usage, sleep environment, and stress. Most treatments require making gradual but consistent changes in the routines and activities of daily living along with the use of basic child behavior management strategies.

Are there some tips I can follow to improve my child’s sleep?

  • Avoid caffeine consumption in the afternoon and evening.
  • Turn off all screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Follow a consistent, calming bedtime routine every night.
  • Follow a consistent sleep schedule, including going to bed and waking at relatively the same time every day, even on weekends and school holidays.
  • Make sure your child is getting adequate light exposure and physical activity during the day.

How do I know if I should see a sleep specialist?

  • Your child’s sleep problems are impacting his or her daytime functioning and/or behavior.
  • Your child’s sleep problems are impacting the sleep of other family members.
  • You’ve tried many things to improve your child’s sleep, and nothing seems to be working.
  • You are concerned about your child’s breathing overnight.
  • You are concerned about your child engaging in unusual movements or behaviors when he or she is sleeping.