I have been asked to teach a short class on sleep and special needs kids this spring, so of course this funny little book came to mind. Truthfully, when I heard of it, I laughed out loud. But bedtime struggles are not fun when you are in the middle of a tantrum at 11 pm. Wrangling with a toddler that alternately cries, whines and yells about bedtime is not a joke. It is hell.
If you have trouble sleeping, then you might be a little more sympathetic to a toddler that fights bedtime, but probably not any more capable of getting him to sleep. You just want the fighting to end so you can get some sleep too.
I asked some other professionals to give me their opinions and experiences with special needs toddlers and sleep problems. Their comments always mentioned the same thing: poor self-calming. Well, my response is that most toddlers need our help to learn this skill and they need to be calm to learn it. It isn’t a natural ability any more than speech. We are wired to speak, walk, and sleep, but kids need modeling, a supportive structure and emotional connections to do all three well. They really do.
Kids with special needs, including autism, sensory differences, and developmental delays can have a harder time adopting a bedtime routine and communicating their desires. They often benefit a lot from things like weighted blankets and aromatherapy to signal to their nervous system that they need to downshift and sleep. White noise and achieving a calm state for sleep can do more than token economies (the kind where you get a star if you get into bed) for special needs kids because they address the biological state of sleep rather than develop a cognitive motivation. That being said, some older kids can use tokens effectively for motivation.
The most powerful thing I know to build good sleep behaviors in special needs toddlers or kids functioning at the toddler level is patience stretching. Dr. Karp’s amazing technique for getting kids to wait can be magic at night. A toddler that can calmly wait for you to return to his crib is one that can let the white noise and the lavender and the weighted blanket lull him back to sleep. The toddler that is agitated and fearful will be so upset that all the other stuff is window dressing. Calm kids can learn to self-soothe. Agitated kids cannot.
Think about it, and try it out. Please post your comments once you have given it a try!