Sleep is an important part of everyone's lives. It is our body’s way of recovering after a long day of working and interacting. Well-known developmental molecular biologist John Medina, whose field of study focuses on brain development, says that we spend one-third of our lives sleeping, therefore getting enough sleep is important for everyone.
Sleeping is especially important to children ages three to eight as their brains are still developing. Children in this age bracket require seven to ten hours of sleep a day to both help them function better the next day and help their brains develop faster. While this is what each of us wants for our children, the reality for XO kids can be very different.
How Lack Of Sleep Affects Our Children
A great number of children with special needs often have a hard time falling or staying asleep, and this makes their symptoms worse. Children who experience sleep problems may have difficulty with fatigue, daytime sleepiness, impaired concentration and performance, and exacerbation of symptoms.
Ruth O’Hara, a psychologist and an expert on child development from Stanford University, says that sleep disturbances “impact cognition, mood, and it affects behavior.” John Medina reinforces this by saying that lack of sleep hurts “attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and motor dexterity.”
Different needs affect sleep in different ways. For example, children with Down syndrome have difficulty sleeping alone, while 80 percent of children on the autistic spectrum have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night. In a study published by PubMed in 2015, pediatricians and neuro-biologists concluded that the irregular circadian rhythm in children with autism interferes with sleeping well. Children with ADHD and/or hypersensitivity are commonly affected by insomnia. as they may easily be woken up by noise.
The US National Institutes of Health explains there are two internal biological mechanisms (circadian rhythm and homeostasis) that work together to regulate when you are awake and sleep:
“Circadian rhythms direct a wide variety of functions from daily fluctuations in wakefulness to body temperature, metabolism, and the release of hormones. They control your timing of sleep and cause you to be sleepy at night and your tendency to wake in the morning without an alarm. Your body’s biological clock, which is based on a roughly 24-hour day, controls most circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms synchronize with environmental cues (light, temperature) about the actual time of day, but they continue even in the absence of cues.
Sleep-wake homeostasis keeps track of your need for sleep. The homeostatic sleep drive reminds the body to sleep after a certain time and regulates sleep intensity. This sleep drive gets stronger every hour you are awake and causes you to sleep longer and more deeply after a period of sleep deprivation.”
When children do not get enough sleep, they struggle. Sleeping for XO children may be difficult, but there are many things you can do right away that can improve the situation.
1. Keeping Track Of Recurring Problems
In a recent interview during the Autism Hope Summit, Alex Doman, founder and CEO of Advanced Brain Technologies and co-author of “Healing at the Speed of Sound” advised parents to keep a sleep diary. A sleep diary can be a simple spiral bound notebook where you keep track of the time your kids go to sleep, how often they wake at night, for how long, and at what times.
By gathering this data, you will be able to identify patterns in the sleeping and waking of your children and you might be able to identify factors that are contributing to problems in their sleeping. If your children are using sleeping aids, you can also use the sleep diary to keep track on the effectivity of these aids.
2. Establish a Reassuring Routine
Creating bedtime routines that are easy to follow will help your child better switch to sleeping mode. This helps children recognize social cues for bedtime. These routines can include pre-sleep activities like a warm bath, reading stories, etc. XO kids are very sensitive to set routines because it reassures them and gives them a clear roadmap to follow.
A good way to get their collaboration is to involve them in the process. For example, you can write out the routine and the time frame while discussing this with the child and ask them to contribute with ideas and suggestions.
A regular time-frame is important as it helps the body get ready to fall asleep at a certain time. When that cue is missed, it may take a full sleeping cycle (up to 2 hours) before the body is able to switch to sleeping mode.
3. Limit Screen Exposure
Using electronic screens before bedtime clearly impact how well children sleep at night. Therefore, exposure to smartphones and other gadgets that emit artificial light should be limited two hours before bedtime and completely avoided an hour before.
In his “Broken Brain” documentary, Mark Hyman, practicing family physician, ten-time #1 New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in his field, explains that The High Energy Visible (HEV) Blue Light emitted from all digital device LED screens – namely, iPhones, iPods, iPads, Samsung Galaxy and all smartphones, Kindle Fire and all tablets, laptop and computer screens – has been discovered to be a factor in sleep disorders caused by Blue Light suppressing your body's melatonin production.
Exposure to light also has an impact on how our brains respond to sleeping since our circadian rhythm is mainly dependent on light. If our bodies are exposed to artificial light at night, it messes up the body clock.
4. Turn the Bedroom into a Sanctuary
The environment and surroundings of children play an important role in helping them fall and stay asleep. Doman’s advises creating a sleep-inducing haven. Playtime and other activities must be limited to other rooms so that the bedroom becomes associated with bedtime. The goal is to create a safe and calm environment where the child can fully rest. Since XO kids tend to have sensory differences making it harder for them to fall asleep or stay asleep, creating an environment that is distraction-free, and noise-free can help them sleep at night.
5. The Softer the Bed, the Easier the Sleep
Make sure that the mattress that your child is using is comfortable enough: The mattress should give good pressure and good body support. Foam mattresses should be replaced every 10 years, but sometimes less as foam mattresses wear down easily, depending on the use. Invest in quality mattresses that will guarantee a good night’s rest for your child.
While there is a debate around off-gassing in foam mattresses in favor of natural latex mattresses, no health risks have officially been linked to off-gassing. However, it may be wise to do your research to see what chemicals are in your mattress materials, especially if your child has asthma or chemical sensitivities.
6. The Magic of Sounds
Many applications and meditation audios are available today. For example, in her famous meditation “Sitting Still Like a Frog,” renowned independent therapist and trainer Eline Snel gently guides children through a relaxation exercise, a great way to set them up for a restful night.
Another example is Doman’s “Sleep Genius,” an application that improves brain rhythm for better sleep, making it easier for children to go to sleep and to stay asleep. Auditory sleeping aids rock the brain to sleep using a neuro-sensory algorithm that stimulates the vestibular system of the body, inducing what is called the sopite response. The sopite response, is a motion-induced drowsiness, a natural phenomenon that happens in the brain when parents rock their children to sleep. The algorithm in this application simulates this response in the brain, allowing children to sleep easier and better.
Sleeping disorders in XO children have taken a back seat in scientific research as scientists and parents choose to focus on more pressing matters, but it is important to remember that XO children need sleep as much as other children. Parents should not be afraid to reach out and look for solutions, whether they may be short or long-term. As we have seen here, there are various strategies to help alleviate sleep deprivation in XO children.
Please share with us what you tried and what worked so that others in our tribe can benefit from your experience!