Decoding sleep problems for children with a learning disability

Anyone can experience sleep issues, but for children with a learning disability it can be more common. Charities reveal their top tips to ensure everyone can have a good relationship with sleep.

Sleep disruption can affect every aspect of daily life, from concentration to mood, but sleep issues are more common for children and adults with a learning disability.

Christine Muldoon is a family support worker at Mencap, she says: “Sleep issues are one of the biggest challenges facing the families I work with.

“Lack of sleep or difficulty sleeping can have a huge effect on both the child and their families.”


If a child with a learning disability is experiencing sleep issues, it can cause large amounts of stress for parents, carers and siblings. The more a whole family is struggling with sleep, the harder it is to manage the issues that are causing the sleep disruption.

“If a child doesn’t have really good sleep hygiene, then they will be coming out of their room and disturbing their parents throughout the night and it makes it harder for the whole family to get a good night’s sleep,” stresses Carol Povey from the National Autistic Society.

The amount of sleep we get affects how we think, feel and behave, making good sleep essential for good mental and physical health. For children with a learning disability, a lack of sleep can lead to increased emotional and behavioural issues, along with concerns for parents.

“They may feel irritable, uncomfortable, distracted, less able to learn and retain new information during the day,” stresses Christine.

“Sleep-deprived parents may struggle to effectively respond to any challenges or problems that they face.”

The cause

In research by the National Autistic Society in association with Happy Beds, 70 per cent of people said that anxiety was the cause of their sleep difficulties, with more than half reporting school or work worries and 44 per cent mentioning sensory issues.

High levels of anxiety affecting children’s sleep is something Carol has seen throughout her four decades working in the autism field.

“As the child grows up and knows they are struggling with sleep and certainly for adults, they can spend a lot of time worrying about whether they are going to sleep or not that night,” reveals Carol.

“Another area people report which is very autism specific is sensory issues, so it may be that things that non-autistic people aren’t particularly aware of like very small sounds happening outside, the television in the house or anything like that: if a child is hyper-sensitive to those things it may be very hard for them to sleep.”

Looking for the root cause of this anxiety is an important step to solving sleep issues. If children are told to simply stop worrying without addressing the cause, it can create more worries.

“It’s very frustrating when people say don’t worry when you can’t stop, for autistic people even more so, so that can be a real concern that they can’t just stop worrying or relax; the more people say it, the more difficult it is to manage that,” stresses Carol.


Solving sleep problems is unique to each individual and family, but having a set routine is something many families find helpful.

“Routine, routine, routine,” emphasises Christine. “A lot of the work I do is supporting families to develop a healthy sleep routine that their child understands and that they as a family can maintain.

“It is so important to keep the same bedtime routine every night and consistent bedtime and wake up times – even at weekends.”

A routine to aid sleep starts before bed time with a set series of events in the lead up so children know it is time to wind down and relax.

“Generally, for most autistic children routine and consistency are just king, they should have as much routine and consistency as possible,” explains Carol.

“It gives a child the sense that they understand what is going on in what can be a very confusing and anxiety provoking world.”

Physical or visual cues can also help. This could include brushing teeth, lights off or a bedtime story – different cues will help different children to understand it is bed time.

“Bouncing, rocking or swinging can help some children who are ‘sensory seekers’ to wind down and settle, while for others this could be too stimulating before bed,” explains Christine. “The key is to understand your child and what works best for them.”

Ensuring the bedroom is quiet, comfortable and has low, soft lighting can also be helpful.

Helping hand

If you are trying to discover the root of sleep issues, you don’t have to do this alone, Christine says: “It can be exhausting and frustrating when children don’t settle at night, but it helps to have support.

“It is important for families to know that the challenges they are going through are common. Many sleeping problems are behavioural, which means they can be addressed.”

Parents, carers and siblings should know they are not to blame for sleep issues and that there is help available.

“I would suggest keeping a sleep diary for a few weeks and advise parents that they aren’t alone, there are professionals who can help like their GP, paediatrician and learning disability team,” emphasises Christine.

Every child and family are unique and some may find it harder to tackle sleep issues. Understanding what is causing sleep issues and the best way to approach a solution can be easier with the help of healthcare professionals or charities.

For more information and advice, speak to Mencap, the National Autistic Society or visit the Sleep Scotland website which is accessible throughout the UK, for support.

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