For babies with special needs, sound slumber requires more than a lullaby and a kiss. According to leading pediatrician William Sears, author of "The Baby Sleep Book" and "The Fussy Baby Book," infants with special needs sleep differently than their peers, typically taking longer to nod off, waking more frequently and taking longer to develop regular sleep patterns.
Naturally, this leads to severely sleep deprived new parents. All parents need the patience, calm and problem-solving abilities fostered by restful sleep. Read on for tips on helping your special-needs baby sleep more soundly (and always consult your pediatrician with specific questions).
Snug as a bug
Infants with special needs may have hypotonia, or low muscle tone, which is linked to Down syndrome, prematurity and some neurological conditions. These babies seem "floppy" and take longer to reach motor-skills milestones like holding the head up, rolling over and sitting. They often respond well to swaddling, which can improve muscle tone by giving their small limbs something to push against. And bonus: Swaddling is also known to promote calmer, more restful sleep.
Be sure your child's swaddle doesn't extend above the shoulders — bunched-up fabric could restrict breathing — and check with your child's pediatrician about swaddling around the hips. Tight swaddling on a baby's lower half may be linked to hip dysplasia, a condition in which the hip joints don't develop properly. The International Hip Dysplasia Institute recommends HALO and Just Born brand swaddles, which gently hug a baby' arms and torso while leaving hips in the proper position for optimal development.
Dr. Sears notes that babies with special needs are highly sensitive to external stimuli; they're less able to tune out distractions, making it harder for them to fall asleep. These babies might hone in on a ray of light, a warbling songbird or the sound of cars humming by on the street, and may struggle to switch into sleep mode, even when they're tired. To help these babies relax into sleep, create a healthy, restful sleep environment by blocking out all external light with felt blackout curtains. Use a carpet, drapes and white noise to buffer and block sound. And keep the sleeping space a cool and comfortable 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit, which promotes deeper, more restful sleep.
Older children with special needs may respond well to weighted sleeping blankets, tight sheet tucks and tightly fitted sleeping garments because snug compression help them feel secure at night. Unfortunately, these items may not be safe for young infants. But a pre-bedtime infant massage can provide calming sensory stimulus that helps your baby relax before bed. A study in UK journal, The Practising Midwife, notes that infant massage can help parents bond with their special needs baby while learning to decode their infant's communication signals.
High-needs infants take longer to wind-down for sleep and may require extra cuddles and soothing before bed. Allow ample time — 45 minutes to one hour — to transition into bedtime mode, and use a consistent nighttime routine. The same elements performed in the same order night after night will help to cue your baby's brain that sleep is near. Keeping your routine consistent will help your tired, wired little one wind down, relax and finally get some rest.■
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.