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Top tips for better sleep for children with sensory disability

The benefits of sleep are well-known—but sleep is a particular concern for parents of children with sensory disability—around 65-75% of these children experience sleep difficulties.
A baby sleeping in a cot, in a blue wrap
  • Vision
  • Hearing

The benefits of sleep are well-known—cell repair, stronger immune system, improved mood and energy to name a few—but many parents find it challenging to make sure their children get the right amount each day, and this is a particular concern for parents of children with sensory disability—around 65-75% of these children experience sleep difficulties.

Karen Willcocks, Nurse Educator at early parenting expert organisation Karitane, shared her insights on how to help children with sensory disability get more sleep, at a NextSense Institute course run for professionals and parents.

‘My research found children with sensory disability experience the same contributing factors for poor sleep as other children, but the higher rate of sleep problems is more commonly due to the increased prevalence of the various contributing factors for poor sleep in this cohort of children,' Karen says.

‘For example, children with hearing loss may experience higher levels of anxiety and children with vision loss can be pre-occupied with the light—a barrier to getting off to sleep and staying asleep when there is disordered sleep, often triggered by too much bright light before bed and overnight.’

There are, however, practical, evidence-based sleep strategies to help children who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or have low vision.

Karen’s top three sleeping tips

  1. Have a visual / braille schedule for young children.
  2. Celebrate achievements related to sleep.
  3. Don’t rush transitions from one activity to the next.

‘Other evidence-based tips include anticipating and planning for individual likes, dislikes or fears of your child and checking in when they are settling. It’s also beneficial to wake and get ready for bed at the same time every day, give or take 30 mins,’ she says.

‘We know that poor sleep affects behaviour, thinking, memory and problem-solving capability, not to mention our stress levels and ability to cope,’ Karen says.

‘And children with sensory disability who experience sleep difficulties, often continue to experience a level of sleep difficulty into adolescence and adulthood.’

Karen has been developing sleep programs with and for parents for almost 20 years and says despite being time poor, it’s critical for parents to look after themselves, to be their best selves for their child. ‘I’m talking about good nutrition, regular exercise, rest and setting realistic expectations, not to mention, reaching out for support when you need it.’

‘When we reached out to Parents of Deaf Children to ask if parents would be able to work with me on my presentation, quite a few immediately offered to share the difficulties they have at home with sleep,’ she says.

Catherine Munkara-Kerr lets seven-year-old daughter Immy sleep with her cochlear implant processor on, so she can hear her parents while she falls asleep.

‘From about 5 months up to around 1 year old, Immy would fall asleep very easily without much intervention and she could sleep through the night. We didn't know she was deaf then and just put it down to her being an easy-going baby. But in fact, when the room was completely dark she didn't have much sensory input and would fall asleep quickly. As she got older, she needed more assistance to sleep and even now at seven years old, she sometimes feels anxious if she can’t hear my husband or I. So, we let her go to sleep with a processor on so she can hear us,' Catherine says.

Even the smallest amount of support for your child can get them on the path to better sleep, and that’s good for both children and parents. Talk to your NextSense professional about options. Sleep and settling experts like Karitane can also give specialist advice.

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