Today (Friday 19th March) marks World Sleep Day and this years’ theme is ‘regular sleep, healthy future’. Vicki Dawson, CEO of The Sleep Charity shares some useful sleep strategies and resources to help parents/carers and the young people they support.
Talking about sleep
Research suggests over 80% of youngsters with a disability will also have a sleep issue, that’s a lot of sleep deprived parent/carers and children. When you are suffering with sleep issues you can feel lonely and isolated. It can seem as though everybody else has children that sleep through the night.
Talking about the sleep issues in your home, with somebody who will listen without judgement, can be incredibly helpful. It is important that you choose somebody to speak to who understands that you just need a listening ear and that you aren’t looking for suggestions. Having space to talk about the impact that sleep issues are having on your life is important.
Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the nation’s sleep – disruption to daily routine, reduced exercise opportunities, increased anxiety levels and more screen time have all played their part. It is important to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a global pandemic and, experiencing difficulties with sleep is not unusual.
Four suggested sleep strategies
You probably feel like you have tried everything to get a better night’s sleep and you probably have! All too often we jump in with strategies without unpicking the root cause. A key part of our work is exploring why sleep issues are happening. There can be many triggers for them and until you have worked these out you cannot start to implement appropriate strategies. You should consider a whole range of things like sensory issues, bedroom environment, diet, impact of medication, medical issues, temperature.
Bedtime can be a confusing time for some youngsters. Using social stories can help them to understand why we need to go to bed and aspects of the routine. Visual timetables can also be helpful to support their understanding of events in the evening and to prepare them for ending activities. If your child uses visual timetables during the daytime, use the same type of symbols to avoid confusion. Avoid using language relating to light and dark at bedtime as that can cause confusion with seasonal changes. Instead talk about ‘night-time’ and ‘morning’.
Consider your child’s diet and whether hunger could be causing some early waking, adding in a supper time may help. Sometimes children with additional needs eat restricted diets, too much sugar in the lead up to bedtime can make it harder to nod off.
It is common for children’s sleep to become delayed; this means they often don’t fall asleep until much later than appropriate. Our body runs on a circadian rhythm that needs some support to keep on track with the 24-hour clock, having a regular bedtime routine is key. A regular wake up time is also important to support your child’s body clock and should be the same, even at weekends.
The hour before bed should aid relaxation. It is helpful to dim the lights and to draw the curtains to encourage your child’s body to produce melatonin. Avoiding screen activities is also important during this time as they can be highly stimulating and may also supress melatonin production. Thinking about their areas of interest you can create a bedtime box full of activities to try. Fine motor skill activities are particularly helpful such as jigsaws and colouring.
The Sleep Charity uses a behavioural approach to sleep that can be effective for most children with SEND. A research study evaluating our methods found that on average children who were looked after or had a diagnosis of ADHD increased their sleep duration by 2.4 hours. You can download the research report here.
There is also some research to suggest that children with ADHD do not release melatonin, the sleep hormone, until later in the evening. Teenagers also go through biological changes meaning they release melatonin later and means they can find it harder to nod off at night-time. We have developed a new site for teenagers where they can learn more about sleep here.
Seek medical support
Sleep issues can be complex and making changes to improve sleep patterns can be incredibly challenging. It is important that you consult with healthcare professionals if you do have concerns about your child’s sleep to rule out medical sleep disorders. Read more here.
Vicki is the Founder and CEO of The Sleep Charity. She is passionate about supporting people to get a better night’s sleep.
Having experienced chronic sleep deprivation herself, and the lack of support available, she decided to do something about it and established the charity in 2012. Vicki holds a Post Graduate Certificate in Education and a Post Graduate Diploma in Special and Inclusive Education and is also a CBTi certified clinician. https://thesleepcharity.org.uk/