Sleep is important for any child, but for your little one with Down syndrome, it’s especially important! Sleep is actually a vital process for brain growth and development. It’s your child’s time to process, organize and store all the information they learned that day. In addition, sleep is vital for hormone balance, physical growth, immunity and more.
When your child sleeps, there’s literally a symphony of bodily rhythms happening in the background. And when they’re all “in tune,” your child will not only feel well rested, but their physiological and neurological development will be that much better. For any child that has any kind of neurodevelopmental delays, sleep can pave a path to better function and better quality of life.
However, most children with Down syndrome aren’t getting the sleep they need and struggle with many more sleep problems compared to children without developmental issues. These include inconsistent breathing patterns, having difficulty to settle, waking multiple times a night, and more! The more fragmented, interrupted, and disturbed a child’s sleep is, the less time their brain has to restore, organize, and more. Your child may be chronically ill or struggling in school or therapy, and this can cause a great deal of frustration for you as parent and caretaker.
To make things more complicated, there’s very little information out there to help right the ship when it comes to your child’s rest, and most specialists can’t offer much more than melatonin or other supplements. But it’s not your child’s diagnosis that leads to their poor sleep — chances are, your child just doesn’t have the skills yet to sleep great. This is something that is learned and practiced until it becomes a habit. Whether your child is just a few months old, or a few years old, great, independent sleep skills can be taught. It takes patience and consistency, but the hard work is worth it at the end!
Want to get started now? Here are my top 3 recommendations:
- Get to bed early: most children up until the age of 7 still need at least 12 hours of sleep a night. I know, it’s a lot! When a child is getting the amount of sleep they need, you avoid overtiredness. Overtiredness often looks like hyperactivity, and makes nighttime wake ups and early mornings more frequent. By getting your child to bed early, you’re taking advantage of that window of opportunity where your child’s circadian rhythm is dipping for the night. So, if your child is already has issues of hyperactivity during the day, and has a hard time settling at night try an early bedtime. What’s early? Bedtime before 8 pm.
- 1 hour before bed, start a “winding down” routine: chances are, your child has had school, therapy, and generally a pretty busy day! I recommend that the hour before bedtime be quiet and relaxing time. This allows your child to unwind and really settle for bedtime. This time can include reading books together, playing quiet games, or a quick bedtime snack. I don’t recommend watching TV or videos on the tablet, as this blue light emission suppresses melatonin production in the brain, which will keep your child up. 20-30 minutes before bedtime, do a really consistent bedtime routine — put on PJs, brush teeth, wash face, say a prayer, read, etc. so that your child’s body and brain can start “shutting down” for the night. The more consistently you follow this, the easier it’s going to be for your child to fall asleep.
- Get plenty of physical activity: not only does this help to create the need for sleep at night, physical activity helps to improve your child’s breathing and helps feed the brain oxygen. When the brain is getting the fuel it needs, it makes it easier to function at its optimal level. That includes doing all the complicated processes necessary at night. I find that kids who get at least 1 hour daily of physical activity often fall asleep easier, stay asleep, and parents may find it improves breathing at night, too. Not sure what activity to start with? Whatever your child can do independently (walk, run, crawl), do lots and lots of that activity!
A great night’s sleep is possible! If you get your child started on just these few things you can see big changes and some more zzz’s in no time! Remember, any change takes some adjusting and practicing, but with consistency these lifestyle changes can become habit for the whole family.
Melissa Doman is a pediatric sleep consultant, specializing in sleep training children with special needs. She is based in Philadelphia, but helps families remotely around the world to get their children sleeping better. She has experience working with children with Down syndrome, ASD, ADD/ADHD, global developmental delay, Cerebral palsy, and other genetic diagnoses. (www.melissadomansleepconsulting.com, firstname.lastname@example.org)