What to do when your child with developmental issues cannot sleep

Sleep is a necessary factor of wellness and good health. Sleep affects safety, thinking, learning, health and interpretation of events especially for children 18. When a child can’t sleep we see a decrease in many areas including alertness, memory, academic performance, and social skills 18,20,22. Much of this decline can be avoided through an increased awareness and subtle changes to sleep habits 18.

A variety of factors can affect the quality of a child’s sleep. The factors that will be addressed here include activity levels, sunlight, food and nutrition, light levels within the bedroom, and temperature. Since sleep is one of the most important factors for brain development 4, we will also discuss some activities that you can do to restore the quality of your child’s sleep and present several basic exercises from Mendability’s Sensory Enrichment Therapy program to assist you.

Activity levels

Child playing with a big ball with mother outside

How active is your child on average? How many hours of play (outside or inside) does your child participate in that requires real effort? Many children on the spectrum are involved in highly-structured programs that may prevent them from getting the physical activity they need, which often creates sleep-related difficulties. Lack of sleep can cause toxicity, discomfort, headaches and night sweats 24.

Research shows that intense exercise can improve oxygenation of the brain and the cells 7, which helps the brain grow and repair itself while we sleep, especially in young people with disabilities 12,13,25. In our experience, one of the most efficient exercises that demands effort, deep breathing, and a quickened heart-rate is squats. We suggest calling this squatting exercise “the Frog dance.” To encourage participation, we invite you to turn on funny music, instruct your child to squat up and down (at least ten times), and do “the Frog dance” with them. The point is to elevate the heart rate for at least 20 minutes and to be able to see a small measure of exhaustion 9.


3 children playing bubbles outside

How many minutes or hours of sunlight exposure does your child receive each day? Depending on the time and season, our children may have limited exposure to direct sunlight, (e.g. at school, at home, driving in the car, during therapy programs). Limiting their exposure to direct sunlight decreases melatonin production 17 and can lead to vitamin D deficiency 3. Exposure to sunlight increases melatonin, which acts as a precursor for sleep. Additionally, Vitamin D directly affects and improves sleep 3.

To increase melatonin and Vitamin D intake, which are essential for sleep 21,8, we suggest spending at least an hour outside with your child, whether it be walking home from school or playing in the backyard (making sure toys and activities are in the sun instead of the shade). If forced inside by the season, be sure your child is near a window so he can catch some sunlight.

Food and Nutrition

kids eating

What are the eating habits of your child? Does your child get all of the nutrients that she needs? Parents often place their children on restricted diets or children often decide only to eat specific foods. Whatever the situation, limited or restricted eating habits may lack the minerals that are crucial for a good night’s sleep 2.

Take note of what your child is eating and watch out for unexpected ingredients, such as green tea in fruit-flavored beverages. We suggest discussing your child’s current diet with a professional dietician. You could also review eating habits with your pediatrician and work together to produce the best food plan for your child.

Light levels in the bedroom


Are there inconsistent levels of artificial or natural light within your child’s bedroom? Recent research has shown that exposure to artificial light before bedtime can repress melatonin onset and disrupt normal sleep patterns 6. As a result, parents should try to keep the light in their child’s bedroom at a consistent level, placing covers over fish tanks, flashing lights, computer monitors, etc.

We suggest window covers to eliminate the distraction that comes from outside light, including passing car headlights. Additionally, we recommend investing in a small nightlight that does not flash or strobe different levels of light. The nightlight provides safety for the child and the parent by giving off enough light to see in a dark room.


Sleeping child with his toy bear.

What is the temperature in your child’s room? In regards to temperature controls, it may be better for a bedroom to be a little cold as opposed to a little hot 10,14. In fact, our body temperature automatically drops while we sleep to save serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter involved in thermoregulation and sleep regulation 10,11,14,24.

We suggest having a cool room with a warm blanket available so the child may regulate their levels of comfort on their own. To sleep between a 62-66 Fahrenheit (17-19 Celsius), your child may not need to be completely covered by blankets while he sleeps 10,11,14.

How to Promote Better Sleep:

Reassure anxious children that you will be back

Mom reassures child

Some children may feel frightened or anxious when an adult leaves the bedroom since they do not understand why that person is no longer visible 16. To decrease your child’s desire to get out of bed, assure her that you will return in a certain number of minutes and make sure that you follow through. By having one to two of these moments each night, you are more likely to build your child’s confidence and alleviate her stress.

Transition to bedtime gently

In our experience, abruptly announcing that it is time for bed can raise anxious buildup levels in children. Instead, we suggest talking about bedtime with them, lowering the lights, and turning down the volume on the TV. By gradually changing the atmosphere of the house, you are decreasing the high amounts of sensory input that your child receives. Doing so should help your child feel more relaxed and give him a better chance of going to bed happily 23.

Sensory Enrichment and Sleep

Research has confirmed that pleasant bedtime activities (i.e., playing relaxing music, using soft voices, cuddling, and reading stories) can improve a child’s quality of sleep 5,12. Parents and caregivers who implement the Mendability exercises below have often commented that their children gradually changed their attitude towards bedtime 15. Typically, we suggest that parents do not use all of these activities in one night.

  • sensory pairings with touch and smellTouch and smell: After bath time, wrap your child in a warm towel and give him a hand and foot massage with a scented lotion. If your child does not tolerate the scent on his skin, you may turn on a diffuser instead.
  • Smell and music: Put two drops of essential oil (e.g. cucumber, rose, vanilla) on your child’s pillow, or put a slice of cucumber in a tissue and slide that into her pillow case. Help your child lie down on her bed and turn on some calming instrumental music to play in the background 1,12,19.
  • Sample Sensory Enrichment Game with Mendability466Touch without seeing: Before bedtime, put some familiar objects into a pillowcase. Instruct your child to put one hand into the pillowcase and identify the items without looking.
  • Matching textures: Touch your child’s foot with a random texture (e.g., a toy car, washcloth, a sponge). Afterward, present your child with three different objects and allow him to determine which texture touched his foot.Sample Sensory Enrichment Game with Mendability464
  • Touch and proprioception (proprioception: awareness of the position of one’s body): Massage your child’s toes, or touch a toe and ask your child to lift her hand on the same side.

These various “end of the day” protocols help the child relax, as they help to reduce anxious buildup from the stresses of the day. Gradually, the child slows down, pays more attention to the scents, massages, and instrumental music and enjoys them more. Those protocols all focus on helping the brain prioritize pleasure versus discomfort, relaxation versus worry.

Sensory Enrichment Therapy has exercises that are specifically designed to help your child restore the quality of his sleep. To learn more about Mendability therapy please visit, www.mendability.com/sensory-enrichment-therapy.


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