Families reach out to me every day about kids who are on the autism spectrum or have a sensory processing disorder. While my REST Method™ works well with kids who are verbal and who have a good understanding of family rules and expectations, it may not be the right fit for some neurodivergent kids.
I got to sit down and chat with Melissa Doman, a sleep consultant for special needs families who are fed up with sleepless nights and are ready to find solutions.
Melissa has over 10 years of experience working with special needs kids, and we discussed how tired parents can help their special needs kids get more and higher quality sleep.
Let’s jump into Melissa’s 3 essential sleep tips!
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1. Make sure all neurological needs are met before and during the bedtime routine.
Melossa says, “The bedtime routine is, for all of us, our way to cue the brain and body that it's time to go to sleep. A lot of kids that I work with are constantly on the go from one place to the next, to school, to therapy, whatever. There's not a lot of time to make sure those additional needs are being met. So the first place to do it is in that bedtime routine.
For most neurotypical kids, we recommend a bedtime routine that's anywhere between 20 to 30 minutes. For kids with special needs, and obviously this depends on their age, but we're looking at a bedtime routine that's about 45 minutes to an hour long to make sure the additional needs are met.
I ask each family I work with very specific questions about where their child is developmentally, both in the sensory areas and also with regards to motor development. We're going to look at places where the child needs help and incorporate that into the routine.”
An example of this is that some kids sleep with their parents because of a sensory need they’re trying to meet. Melissa works with parents to add some tactile activities in their bedtime routine. She also works with kids who are sensitive to sounds to help them learn that sounds can happen and it’s still safe to sleep, so they’re less likely to wake up when random sounds occur during the night.
2. Make sure nutritional needs are met before sleep.
Melissa tells us that “25% of kids that I work with have middle of the night wake ups that actually have something to do with how many calories they're getting during the day.
You're constantly on the go. For our neurodivergent population, the amount of brain work they have to do to say that additional word, to take that additional step, they're burning calories left and right.
I work with kids who are grazers and who are picky eaters. I was speaking yesterday to a mom that I'm working with. Her son has a bowl of cereal before he goes to school and won't eat anything until four o'clock. So when he comes home, he's super dysregulated. In that regard, we look at what foods they need to have a good night's rest.
Foods that are high in magnesium, calcium, and vitamin B6 help their bodies feel more relaxed, but calcium and B6 are very important for natural melatonin production. If a child is super picky or we have a child who's a grazer, we might have to supplement some of these things to make sure they're getting adequate amounts.
It can be as simple as adding a really protein rich bedtime snack.”
Neurodivergent kids may be burning through calories faster than neurotypical kids. But Melissa has seen many times in her work how adding in a bedtime snack with enough protein noticeably reduces night time wake ups!
3. Make sure your child gets the amount of physical activity they need – just not too much.
“Most of the time when we're talking about sleep training, if we get into physical activity, the usual recommendation is to do more of it to burn energy and create that need for sleep. But for some kids that I work with, we can go overboard.
So it's all about finding that balance, whether it's sensory or physical.
It’s a little harder to figure out, but if your child doesn't tend to like physical activity, simply just getting them out for a walk for 15-20 minutes can be very beneficial. We have to be mindful that we're not going overboard and overstimulating that system.
What I would recommend to parents in that regard is to just start writing down how much physical activity, not necessarily the activity itself itself, but how many minutes or hours is the child getting and then correlating that with what's happening at night. Most of the time we'll start to figure out what's not enough and what's too much.”
A few more nuggets of knowledge Melissa shared:
No screen time whatsoever for an hour before bed.
Make changes in baby steps so they’re more manageable.
Many neurodivergent kids try medications only to find the underlying issue is behavioral and can be solved without needing medication – but many pediatricians don’t get training on behavioral sleep problems.
Families can work together to find a path to good sleep for their neurodivergent kids – and themselves!