People always advise new mothers to sleep when their baby sleeps. This is very practical advice if your baby sleeps for eight hours each night and you have absolutely nothing that needs to be done in the hours when you’re not feeding them, or soothing them, or changing them, or performing any of the million tasks that there are to do when you’re caring for an infant. When my children were babies and they finally took a nap during the day, I had no choice but to use that time to sterilise bottles, wash soiled baby clothes and generally perform all of the duties that I couldn’t do when they were awake and needing my constant attention.

But, under normal circumstances, as a child gets older, they generally sleep for longer, until the issue of complete and utter exhaustion of the early days turns into the matter of moving your child into their own bed or bedroom and before you know it, other than the fact that no child generally wants to go to bed, sleep isn’t much of an issue at all.

With my first two children, it all went by in a blur. I don’t remember when they started sleeping in their own beds, or being able to get to sleep on their own. Everything fell into place and whilst I do recall being woken in the night as a toddler climbs into my bed, in the grand scheme of things, sleep was never a huge issue for me with “normal parenting”.

Then, I gave birth to my third child who went on to be diagnosed with autism, and everything “normal” and conventional was thrown out the window. Nine years later I still struggle somewhat with my son’s sleep patterns and so I inevitably struggle to get enough sleep for myself.

Bedtime usually begins with me following the ‘routine’ as much as possible. I give several warnings of the impending bedtime and begin the routine with giving my son a bath and a massage to relax him. Then, he’s supposed to go to bed and stay there. On a wonderful night, where the universe has aligned with my desires, it happens – he falls to sleep relatively quickly and I’m left wondering if the angel of parental joy has finally bestowed her grace upon me. On a typical night though, as I lead him towards his bedroom he runs around the house like an escaping convict knocking down anything in his path and screaming like a banshee. Even after finally putting him into bed, he might choose to shout at the top of his voice for hours, or get out of bed what feels like a million times with a million different questions, or be hungry, or have just noticed a two week old scab on his knee that suddenly “really hurts”. This can all last from about 7pm until the early hours of the morning on the more trying nights.

The following is a list of some of the things that generally work for our family. Nothing works all the time. With a child with sleep issues, I think it’s a good idea to have a range of tools and methods at your disposal and be willing to change them as needed. There is a difference between consistency and flogging a dead horse, don’t be afraid to stop doing what isn’t working and reintroduce it at a later stage.

  1. ‘Heavy work’ (proprioceptive input) before bedtime regulates a child’s arousal level and organises their nervous system. Think of activities that involve carrying, pushing, pulling that they can do around the house. Also, consider using a weighted blanket or lap pad.
  1. Devise a bedtime routine that your child can mark off (laminate it and let them tick off completed tasks with a dry wipe marker). A successful night can add towards points for reward.
  1. Bedtime stories don’t generally work for us - they stimulate him and generate questions that unanswered lead to anger and frustration on his part. Consider a story earlier on in the evening.
  1. If your child has genuine sleep issues, it’s likely that they WILL come out of their bed at some point. My son has three cards, one allows him out of bed to use the toilet, the other allows him a question and the other is his choice. After that, the rule is that he stays in bed and I might offer a reward or points towards a reward for sticking to the “three cards only policy”.
  1. Behaviour charts work (sometimes). Rewarding good behaviour generally works with all children. Not all the time, in fact, sometimes I get my three cards and behaviour chart thrown at me in angry tantrums, but an incentive to try to stay in bed might be useful sometimes.

There are numerous studies that give scientific explanations of the dangers of lack of sleep, and even some that detail the sleep deprivation in autism families, but in clear and plain language: the less sleep YOU get, the less able you are to take care of you and your family.

Consider the following…

  1. Think about medication for your child.

It may not work for your child, or you might be totally against it, but equip yourself with the information and make a decision. It might make all the difference.

  1. Schedule a nap during the day.

I actually write mine in my diary. I’m serious. Right between a consultant appointment in the afternoon and parents evening in the evening you might see “Have a nap!” highlighted for two hours in the afternoon, just before the school run. Sure, I could vacuum the entire house in that time or clean the whole kitchen, but recharging my body so that I am mentally and physically better able to function is just as (if not more) important than everything else.

  1. You’re not Superwo(man).

People call special needs parents’ superheroes, but whilst we are pretty special and amazing people, none of us (that I know of) have the ability to heal extra rapidly from injury, have neither superhuman strength nor superfast speed. We aren’t infallible. We are human beings and even though more is required of us as parents, we still only have the same capabilities as everyone else. Practice self-care - take care of yourself…your child needs you.

  1. Accept help if it’s offered.

I’m very bad at this. Every once in a while, people ask if there’s anything that they can do. Before I know it I’ve pitifully uttered “Oh no….I’ll manage…” as I inwardly curse myself for not being honest. Even if you ask them to simply come round and watch the kids for an hour and a half whilst you nap, it will make a difference…and you can reward the Good Samaritan with a chat over tea and cake afterwards!

  1. Simplify your life.

Prioritise what is most important and leave what isn’t. You don’t have time for everything. Don’t try to do it all at the expense of YOU.

If you have a child with a neurological condition, you know that sleep is an important issue for both your child and you. A child functions better the more sleep they get – even if they resist sleep or seem to function fine with minimal amounts. However, please don’t forget how important sleep also is for you and the rest of your family

…. And on that note, I am going to take my pre-scheduled nap ;)

Miranda lives in London, is a mother of four, substitute teacher, blogger and wife to her better half. When she isn’t mothering, teaching or blogging she enjoys as much travel and retail therapy as is physically and financially possible with four children and a two-year-old Shih Tzu. She blogs at www.confessionsofaspecialneedsmom.com but posts more frequently on www.facebook.com/confessionsofaspecialneedsmom