Sleep and Your Child with Special Needs: What Parents Need to Know

By Leadley, Lauri | The Exceptional Parent, February 2011 | Go to article overview
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Sleep and Your Child with Special Needs: What Parents Need to Know

Leadley, Lauri, The Exceptional Parent

Getting a good night's sleep is important to good health for all of us, but for children with special needs, getting that good night's sleep can be especially difficult. According to a National Sleep Foundation study, more than two-thirds of children experience one or more sleep problems at least a few nights a week. However, studies show that children with special needs, including conditions such as ADHD, autism, Asperger's syndrome, craniofacial anomalies, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and muscular dystrophy are at a much higher risk for sleep disorders than children who do not.

According to Dr. Stephen Sheldon, director of the sleep medicine center at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, "Children with special needs tend to have at least one sleep disorder." He continues to say that it's not unlikely that a child with special needs have two or more sleep disorders at the same time.

It's important to diagnose and treat sleep disorders in children to eliminate and/or manage other health issues. Efficient sleep has been proven to be a major factor in the healthy growth of all children, but we believe it's especially important for those children with special needs.

One of the most common sleep disorders experienced by children with special needs is obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that is far more common than most of us realize.


First described in 1965, sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. It's defined as when breathing stops during sleep for at least 10 seconds at least five times an hour. Sleep apnea owes its name to a Greek word, apnea, meaning "want of breath." Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when air passage in the upper respiratory tract becomes obstructed during sleep and prevents breathing until low levels of oxygen in the blood cause a person to respond by waking up and taking a deep, snorting breath. People who have obstructive sleep apnea actually stop breathing!

Children who have obstructive sleep apnea may exhibit symptoms such as snoring, snorting, noisy breathing, mouth breathing, strange sleeping positions (for example, with the head bent back at the neck), restless sleep, frequent waking at night, behavioral or developmental problems, weight loss or not gaining weight at the expected rate, frequent urination or bedwetting, and nightmares. They may also exhibit excessive daytime sleepiness, daytime cognitive and behavior problems, including problems paying attention, and aggressive behavior and hyperactivity. It needs to be noted that many children with obstructive sleep apnea may breathe normally during the daytime. Studies have shown that children with Down syndrome have a particularly high risk of obstructive sleep apnea, with boys at a much higher risk than girls (65% versus 38%). For those children with Down syndrome who also have a heart condition, obstructive sleep apnea is particularly troublesome because it decreases oxygen levels in the blood, putting strain on the heart.


If your child is exhibiting the symptoms mentioned above it is best to go visit your family doctor, an ear, nose and throat specialist, or a sleep specialist. They will likely recommend a test called a polysomnography (sleep study). A sleep study is usually done on an overnight basis at a sleep clinic where you child can be monitored while he or she sleeps so that doctors can determine what is going on. The sleep is monitored by computers that are connected to the child through wires that are taped to their head and body. While it looks funny, the wires are painless, and generally do not get in the way of the person sleeping.


Your doctor will determine what the best treatment for your child is, however there are many treatments available.

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Sleep and Your Child with Special Needs: What Parents Need to Know


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