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Healthy Sleep Habits for Neurodivergent Children: Evidence-Based Strategies

Parenting neurodivergent children requires understanding, patience, and unwavering support. Central to their well-being, and that of the entire family, is the quality of sleep. This blog post explores the significance of healthy sleep for neurodivergent children, supported by evidence-based information. We also offer nonjudgmental guidance and specific steps grounded in research to help parents create a sleep-friendly environment.

boy wearing yellow shirt
Well rested and focused.

"Neurodivergent" is a term used to describe individuals whose neurological development and functioning differ from what is considered typical or "neurotypical". It acknowledges and respects the natural diversity in neurological development and functioning. The concept challenges the idea that there is a single, normal way for the brain to work and recognizes that there is a spectrum of neurological differences.


Sleep for neurodivergent children will often look different and so it's important for us to empower parents with the tools and education that the need to support their child(ten).


What does "neurodivergent" mean?

Neurodivergence encompasses a range of conditions, including but not limited to autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and other neurological variations For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on supporting sleep for children with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, sensory processing, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).


People who are neurodivergent may have unique strengths, abilities, and perspectives that differ from the neurotypical population.


The neurodiversity movement advocates for recognizing and appreciating neurological differences and promoting inclusivity and accommodation for individuals with diverse neurotypes.


Young girl wearing pink and denim smiling.
Does it ever feel like everyone else is sleeping except you?

 

The Science Behind Pediatric Circadian Rhythms


Understanding the biological underpinnings of sleep in neurodivergent children is crucial. Pediatric circadian rhythms, governing sleep-wake cycles, can be disrupted in neurodivergent individuals. Children that experience sensory processing struggles can take up to 53 minutes longer to fall asleep than a neurotypical child (Hartman et al, 2023).


So to the parents that are struggling because their child isn't falling asleep at 8 pm like their siblings, it's because they just might not be ready to fall asleep yet. Research indicates that maintaining a consistent sleep schedule helps regulate circadian rhythms, promoting better sleep quality. Given that sleep is foundational to a child’s health, growth, and development, sleep should routinely be part of care for children with sensory sensitivities (Hartman et al., 2022).


The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents start promoting good sleep hygiene, with a sleep-promoting environment and a bedtime routine in infancy, and throughout childhood. Teaching families about sleep requires an understanding of sleep regulation, physiology, developmental patterns, optimal sleep duration recommendations, and the many factors that influence sleep and sleep hygiene (Bathory et al, 2017). In our opinion, It's about more the teaching...it's also about compassion, connection and creating a sustainable sleep routine that works for your family.


3 children with a stack of books from the library
Learning about healthy age appropriate sleep habits is fun!

Sleep Supplements and Neurodivergent Sleep Patterns


Melatonin, a hormone regulating sleep-wake cycles, plays a pivotal role in neurodivergent children's sleep challenges. Studies suggest melatonin supplementation may improve sleep onset and duration. Research on melatonin production in individuals with ASD suggests differences compared to neurotypical individuals. Studies report irregular melatonin secretion, including delayed onset, reduced production, or disrupted circadian rhythms with neurodivergent populations (Tordjman et al, 2013).


Incorporating magnesium adds an evidence-based dimension. Research highlights its potential role in promoting relaxation and better sleep quality. While ongoing studies explore the direct impact on neurodivergent children's sleep, discussing any sort of supplementation with your healthcare providers is recommended for proper dosages and timing.


Practical Steps Rooted in Evidence


Young girl wearing headphones while sitting at a table.
What's the evidence say?

Building on the scientific foundation, specific steps, backed by evidence, help parents create a sleep-friendly environment:


1. Consistent and Calming Bedtime Routine to Support Circadian Rhythms

Establish a consistent bedtime routine to reinforce circadian rhythms. This may look different for every family and includes waking at the same time every day (even on the weekends). With that being said, some children will need an earlier bedtime and some will need an extended bedtime closer to 10pm. That’s where working in collaboration with your pediatrician and a sleep consultant will offer desperately needed insight and bedtime interventions.


2. Optimize Sleep Environment

Create a comfortable and calming sleep space (this may look different for the neurodivergent child). For example, white noise may be more stimulating than calming for some while for other children blocking out potentially competing sounds is helpful. Very child specific.


3. Screen Time

Minimize stimulating activities before bedtime, including screen time when possible while acknowledging that an Ipad may be a means of communication for some children (and that’s ok).


4. Increase Sleep Confidence

Most children will experience night time fears and experience an anxious feeling during the night at one point in their childhood. Strategies include increasing confidence while acknowledging how it feels with connection. We love the book by Dr Becky Kennedy Good Inside that addresses this specific topic and several other parenting strategies.


5. Sleep supplements

Creating and practicing consistent healthy sleep habits is the foundation. However, there are some children that also need a supplement in combination along with practicing healthy sleep habits. There should be no shame if your child needs a supplement. Again, please consult your child's healthcare team about potential sleep supplementation, adhering to proper dosages and timing for sleep quality.


6. Child Perception and Mindset Shift

For children with sensory processing disorder, 64% of children reported trouble sleeping (Hartman et al., 2022). Empowering a child in the sleep process, begins to increase their confidence around sleep. For example, encouraging your child to choose their sleepwear in order to feel in control and included in the nightly routine can ensure comfort, begins to build positive associations with bedtime and reduce aversions.


7. Collaboration and Support

A recent study on behavioral sleep problems in young children with neurodivergent behaviors showed that telephone call interventions and support for sleep management from an advanced practice nurse was compared with regular home visits. Parents shared their self documented sleep logs and together reviewed interventions, behavior and sleep expectations, along with guidance. The findings indicated that the telephone calls and support appeared to be acceptable and convenient to deliver sleep support and were positively valued by both parents and healthcare practitioners (Skuladottir et al., 2022).


Integrating evidence-based strategies into sleep practices is a meaningful step in supporting neurodivergent children's well-being. Open communication with healthcare providers and parenting support like sleep consultants and mental health workers, ensures a tailored approach to meet each neurodivergent child's unique needs and fosters a foundation for healthy sleep habits. Always consult healthcare professionals before interventions, especially in pediatric populations.


Dad and child sleeping.
Restful nights feels good.

Now what??

If you are bedtime chaos lingering until 11:30 at night, or waking in the middle of the night with a wakeful and frustrated child and are desperately seeking the elusive gift of sleep, then it's time to take control of your family's sleep. Discover the expertise and guidance of our professional sleep consultants who understand the unique sleep challenges of new families.


We are armed with the latest research, evidence-based strategies, and personalized approaches to help you overcome insomnia, night awakenings, and other sleep disturbances. With our proven techniques and expert advice, you can unlock the secrets to deep, restorative sleep.



Hi, I’m Sara, the owner of The Mama Co-Op. I’m a board certified pediatric RN with over 20 years of nursing experience. I’m a certified pediatric and adult sleep consultant with a focus in perinatal mental health and pediatric neurodivergent sleep. I guide parents through all of the dreaded sleep schedules and routines towards a realm of peaceful, nurtured and rejuvenating sleep. My approach advocates for mental health (for all family members) and for us parents, sleep (or lack of) is bidirectional. I’m currently in the last year of grad school to become a psych/mental health nurse practitioner to further support the pediatric and maternal mental wellness needs.

I hope to become a relatable source to the families I am supporting because I’ve been exactly where you are!


I’m a mom of four and married to my summer camp sweetheart. We live in the Denver metro area with our senior goldendoodle. On the weekends I love to spend time in the mountains, attending outdoor concerts, and is a want-to-be foodie.


Working as a sleep consultant is more than sleep. It’s about supporting the parent and the child. It’s a collaborative effort with each family that will result in peaceful sleep and ultimately, rest.


So much of what we read and see online and hear from others is overwhelming and creates confusion. Everything we do together will be focused on helping you sift through that information and trust your gut. We will get through this together. Parenting is hard, no matter the stage, and you aren’t alone in this adventure. I see you doing your best and still feeling like you aren’t doing a good enough job. But know this, up until this point you have been doing all that you can to get through each day and there’s NO shame in that. Now, let’s get you and your family growing and thriving.


Schedule a free discovery call with a consultant specialized in pediatrics and neurodivergent sleep coaching here.


Disclaimer:


This blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. Please consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new medications or supplements, especially during pregnancy or when considering the use of sleep aids in children. Every individual is unique, and personalized guidance is essential for making informed decisions about sleep health.


References:


Bathory, E., & Tomopoulos, S. (2017). Sleep Regulation, Physiology and Development, Sleep Duration and Patterns, and Sleep Hygiene in Infants, Toddlers, and Preschool-Age Children. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care, 47(2), 29–42.


Hartman, A. G., McKendry, S., Soehner, A., Bodison, S., Akcakaya, M., DeAlmeida, D., Bendixen, R., Little, L., & Wallisch, A. (2022). Characterizing Sleep Differences in Children With and Without Sensory Sensitivities. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 1–10.


Leao, M. A., Lane, S., & Spielmann, V. (2022). Sleep, Sensory Integration and Processing, and Autism: A Scoping Review...American Occupational Therapy Association, INSPIRE Conference, March 31-April 3, 2022, San Antonio, Texas. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 76, 1.


Malkani, M. K., Pestell, C. F., Sheridan, A. M., Crichton, A. J., Horsburgh, G. C., & Bucks, R. S. (2022). Behavioral sleep interventions for children with ADHD: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Attention Disorders, 26(14), 1805-1821.


Skuladottir, A., Sigurdardottir, A. O., & Svavarsdottir, E. K. (2022). The “Better sleep better well-being” intervention for parents of infants with moderate sleep problems: A quasi-experimental study. Nordic Journal of Nursing Research, 42(2), 85–92.


Tordjman, S., Najjar, I., Bellissant, E., Anderson, G. M., Barburoth, M., Cohen, D., Jaafari, N., Schischmanoff, O., Fagard, R., Lagdas, E., Kermarrec, S., Ribardiere,


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