According to the National Institute of Health, sleep problems are one of the most common problems parents face with their children. If you are a parent of a unique learner, then you have likely experienced this challenge.

Lack of sleep causes problems not only with behavior but also interferes with learning ability. It is quite possible that many of the difficult behaviors your unique learner exhibits are related to poor sleep quality. This may also be true of learning difficulties.

Sleeping problems have a big impact both on your unique learner and on you. In this issue, I talk about the problems unique learners can experience with sleep and some strategies that help.

A normal sleep-wake cycle runs its course each 24-hour period. Our biological clock lets our brain know when it is time to sleep at night and wake in the morning.

There are several stages of sleep and we cycle through all of them multiple times every night.

Phase 1

We begin with a phase of light sleep. This is really just the few minutes it takes to fall asleep or fall back to sleep. Your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow, and your muscles relax with occasional twitches. Your brain waves begin to slow from their daytime wakefulness patterns. You may notice your child twitching or jerking during this phase.

Phase 2

The next stage is between a light sleep and the deeper sleep we need to feel refreshed in the morning. We spend more time in this stage than any other. Heartbeat and breathing slow, and muscles relax even further. Your body temperature drops, and eye movements stop.

Phase 3

The third stage is the period of deep sleep that you need to feel refreshed in the morning. It occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night. This is why they say you get your best sleep before midnight. Your heartbeat and breathing slow to their lowest levels during sleep. Your muscles are relaxed, and it may be difficult to awaken you.

Phase 4

We then move to the ’Rapid Eye Movement’ phase of sleep (REM). Here the body is very relaxed, but the brain is active, and it is at this time that dreaming takes place. Your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids.  Mixed frequency brain wave activity becomes closer to that seen in wakefulness.  Your breathing becomes faster and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase to near waking levels.  REM sleep would usually begin about 90 minutes after falling asleep.  Most of your dreaming occurs during REM sleep, although some can also occur in non-REM sleep.  Your arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralyzed, which prevents you from acting out your dreams.

We cycle through these stages a number of times each night, e.g. after light sleep, deeper sleep, deepest sleep, and REM sleep we move back to light sleep. However, between each cycle, we experience a ‘partial waking’ which may only last a few seconds and which you will not remember the next day.

This is the normal sleep cycle. Every child requires different amounts of sleep. As a general rule, these are the amounts of sleep children require, by age:

  • Ages 1-3: 12-14 hours of sleep per day (including naps)
  • Ages 3-6: 10-12 hours of sleep per day
  • Ages 7-12: 10-11 hours of sleep per day

Disrupted Sleep Cycles

Unfortunately, many unique learners do not have normal sleep cycles. Not only do they not get enough sleep, but their sleep patterns and cycles are also often disrupted. The ‘partial waking’ that is part of the normal sleep cycle can be a ‘full waking’ that may last an hour or even the rest of the night.

Not getting a good night’s sleep for one day can cause fatigue, short temper, and reduced focus. When a child doesn’t get enough sleep on a regular basis it can have a serious impact on the child’s life and overall health and well-being. Research shows a connection between lack of sleep and the following characteristics:

  • Increased problem behaviors
  • Irritability
  • Hyperactivity
  • Aggression
  • Depression
  • Poor learning and cognitive performance

Of course, when your child doesn’t sleep well, neither do you. This means you have less tolerance and patience to deal with the behavior problems that result from your child’s poor sleep health.

Improve Sleep

There are some simple steps parents can take to improve their children’s sleep. For example, avoiding sugary foods or drinks with caffeine, and limiting the amount of screen time. Here are a few more:

  • Establish a nighttime routine: give your child a bath, read a story, and put him or her to bed at the same time every night.
  • Help your child relax before bed by reading a book, giving a gentle back massage, swaddling in soft blankets, or turning on soft music.
  • Shut down television, video games, and cell phones or tablets. The blue light from screens shuts down melatonin production – the hormone that helps you sleep.
  • Eliminate stimulating activities and what grandma would call ‘horsing around’ at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Prevent sensory distractions during the night by putting heavy curtains on your child’s windows to block out the light, installing thick carpeting, and making sure the door doesn’t creak. Make sure that the temperature of the room and choice of bedding fit with your child’s sensory needs.
  • Check with your child’s pediatrician about giving your child melatonin just before bedtime. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates how sleepy or awake you feel. Light, or lack of light, is the body’s signal to increase or decrease the production of melatonin.
  • Talk to a sleep psychologist about bright-light therapy. Exposing the child to periods of bright light in the morning may help regulate the body’s release of melatonin by helping them to feel more awake during the day.

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep plays a critical role in good health and well-being throughout your life. During sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function and maintain your physical health. In children and teens, sleep also helps support growth and development.

Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you’re sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information.

Studies show that a good night’s sleep improves learning and problem-solving skills. Sleep also helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative.

Studies also show that sleep deficiency may cause you to have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behavior, and coping with change. The damage from sleep deficiency affect how well you think, react, work, learn, and get along with others.

Think for a moment how many of these points your unique learner struggles with on a regular basis. Problem-solving skills, focus, and short-term memory are part of executive function and are often areas of concerns for parents of unique learners. Behavior issues including getting along with others are also sources of anxiety for parents.

Could lack of sleep magnify the issues typically experienced by unique learners? When one considers the poor quality of sleep that many unique learners get on a regular basis, one must wonder how much of the unique learner’s struggle with learning and behavior could be attributed to sleep deficiency.


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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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