Top sleep tips for parents and carers of disabled children

If your child is having sleep difficulties, it can have a substantial impact on both their life and yours. The following tips from Scope's expert sleep practitioners, Maxine and Angie, and from members of our online community, may help to set you on the right track to healthy sleep.

Establish a consistent ‘golden hour’ before bedtime

We would recommend a wind-down time of an hour; we call this the golden hour. By keeping a consistent routine every night it will give your child a solid foundation for sleep.” – Maxine and Angie, Scope sleep practitioners

Any kinds of exercise or exciting activities should be avoided in this period. The things you do with your child prior to sleep and the way you approach bedtime should also remain the same, whilst allowing for necessary changes as the child grows up.

One community member describes her child’s bedtime routine: “To help our daughter sleep, and to reinforce the idea that it's bedtime, we follow the same script every night. We go in her room, have a story, put on some sensory lights and then I do the 'time to go to sleep' bit from the end of 'In the Night Garden’.”

Set a consistent bedtime and wake-up time

“In order to set your child’s body clock, you need to get them up at the same time seven days a week. Even if your child has had a bad night, do not be tempted to let them lie in the following morning, as this will disrupt the following night’s sleep and confuse their body clock.” - Maxine and Angie, Scope sleep practitioners

You can find more information about establishing good sleep habits on Scope’s sleep routine pages.

Eliminate all screens from the bedroom

“This includes TV, iPad, mobile phones and any other device with a screen. All devices emit a light that reduces the production of melatonin; this is the sleep hormone that is naturally produced to make us feel tired.” -  Maxine and Angie, Scope sleep practitioners

Use calming pressure if necessary

Some children with sensory needs find it easier to sleep if there is a sense of pressure against their skin. If this is the case then tighter bed clothing, a heavy blanket or a sleeping bag pulled tight can be particularly useful.

Install black-out blinds

“The darkness created by black-out blinds will help the production of melatonin.” - Maxine and Angie, Scope sleep practitioners
 
All humans sleep better in a darkened room, and for children with complex needs this can be even more important. Installing black-out blinds or something similar which prevents light from entering the room can therefore be particularly effective at enhancing sleep quality.

Be mindful of bedroom colours

“Although we all like to make our child’s room lovely, the best environment for sleep is plain pastel walls and minimal furniture” - Maxine and Angie, Scope sleep practitioners

Blues and greens are known to be great colours for relaxation, while bright colours that are stimulating to look at, such as red, yellow and orange, should be avoided in the bedroom.

If necessary provide something for the child to focus on

While anything bright and stimulating should generally be avoided, there may be exceptions. Providing something calming for the child to focus their attention on can help the onset of sleep. One community member explains how, “we stuck dozens of fluorescent stars and moons on Beth’s ceiling, and when the lights were off, the whole room was aglow. She would often lie mesmerised by the effect until she fell asleep.” You can also try nightlights and projectors, as available in many children’s shops.

Audiobooks or music can also be useful. Another community member uses Thomas the Tank Engine audiobooks read by Ringo Starr to lull their child to sleep. You might even try recording your own voice reading bedtime stories.

When sleep is away from home, keep something familiar

If you take your child on holiday, or they stay with a relative or in respite care, the unfamiliarity can make sleep more difficult. In these situations it may be a good idea to ensure that they have something familiar with them, such as a favourite pillowcase, or a toy. Smell can also be important: one community member “keeps a lavender sachet inside my son's pillowcase so that whenever he goes to respite his bed sheets smell the same as at home.”

Take turns waking up

If your child is having trouble sleeping through the night, if you have a spouse or partner then it can be useful taking turns to get up and spend time with them to get them back to sleep. That way at least one of you will get a decent night’s sleep each night, and you will be better able to care for the child and yourself.

Keep everything the same throughout the night

“It’s important to leave the room exactly as it was when the child went to sleep. If you leave the door slightly open with a little light entering the room, keep it this way all night.” - Maxine and Angie, Scope sleep practitioners

Enable your child to ‘self-settle’

“We all wake several times during the night but we often don’t remember. What your child had to fall asleep with is what they will need again when they wake during the night such as a dummy, music or parent laying with them, so it is important that your child learns to fall asleep without an associated object or person.” – Maxine and Angie, Scope sleep practitioners

You can find more information about sleep routines and other sleep advice on Scope's sleep pages.

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Using these tips

These tips have been contributed by members of our online community. We hope they will give you some ideas to try, but if you need further help why not post a question to the community or talk to one of our community advisors. If you have any concerns about your health or the wellbeing of someone you are caring for, please consult a doctor or qualified professional.