Cleveland occupational therapy

How Occupational Therapy Can Help Treat Children With Sleep Problems

If your child isn’t sleeping well, it impacts not only their daytime functioning, but that of the family at-large. Children with special needs are at increased risk for sleep disorders and sleep disturbances, which can have a major impact on their mood, behavior, learning, physiology and just generally how well they feel. This can have a profound impact on how well a child functions each day. Occupational therapy can help.

Many people don’t consider that sleep is one of the primary occupations of children until they turn 5. Even after that, it’s critical to healthy growth and development.

According to the Sleep Help Institute, kids under 2 should be receiving anywhere from 14-16 hours of total sleep (including naps) every day. Kids 2-3 should be getting 10-11 hours at night (plus 1-2 hours of nap time). Kids 3-5 should be getting 10-13 hours of sleep with an extra hour of nap time, and kids 5-12 should be getting 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night.

Kids With Special Needs Especially Prone to Sleep Trouble

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that insufficient sleep is a serious public health problem, as it contributes to motor vehicle crashes, work-related accidents and chronic disease. “Sleep inefficiency” is understood to be a lack of restorative sleep, which includes an adequate amount of restorative sleep (meaning all five stages of it).

Childhood sleep problems are more common than you might think. They affect about 25 percent of all preschool children and 43 percent of school-age kids. Children with developmental delays and disorders are even more likely to be referred for sleep studies. One study found that 49 to 89 percent of children on the autism spectrum had trouble sleeping. Same goes for 25 to 50 percent of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and 34 to 86 percent of children with intellectual disabilities.

Sleep specialists are key to resolving these issues, but it’s also worthwhile to seek additional insight from your child’s Cleveland occupational therapy team. We understand that a child who is sleep-deprived is going to have a tougher time retaining new information, regulating sensory systems and fluctuating emotions and have greater trouble socializing. Lack of sleep can make a child feel literally off-balance. That does not set the stage for success – in school, therapy or any other setting.

How Occupational Therapy Can Help

Occupational therapists use their knowledge of sleep disorders, the physiology of sleep and evidenced-based sleep practices to help parents to address their child’s sleeping problems.

For example, Cleveland occupational therapy providers at Therapy & Wellness Connection work with many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder. We examine the impact that sleep deprivation has on the child, the family and other caregivers. We’ll look at the entire sleep process – going to sleep AND staying asleep. Then we suggest implementing various changes to bedtime routines, habits and patterns on a trial basis to see what works best. Some of what we might suggest:

  • Strategies to address sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding behavior (tighter or looser pajamas, a bedtime book that depicts bedtime routines, lightweight blanket, stickers or lots of praise if a child sleeps successfully through the night).
  • Management of the physical environment. This could be reducing the number of toys in a child’s bedroom, dimming the lights, adding a fan to ensure the room is cool and white noise muffles other sounds in the home. Some families find essential oils diffusers and/or humidifiers to be helpful.
  • Helping families adjust bedtime schedules and routines, including introduction of calming activities that may facilitate an easier transition to sleep. Often, consistency is just as important as whatever routine you do decide on.

Another example might be helping children with down syndrome, who the American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports sleep poorly with more fragmented sleep and frequent wakings compared to typically-developing children. Some researchers attribute this to sleep disordered breathing (i.e., sleep apnea). Some of the reasons for increased risk of obstructive sleep apnea in children with down syndrome include obesity and low muscle tone. These are both issues our occupational therapists can help our patients work on – helping families incorporate healthy eating habits and practicing various exercises to improve muscle tone. These are in addition to working on consistent, calming bedtime routines.

Occupational therapists develop unique plans tailored to address the struggles of each individual and their family.

Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides occupational therapy to children in Cleveland, Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Akron and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, education services, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email

Additional Resources:

Occupational Therapy’s Role in Sleep, The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.

More Blog Entries:

Tips for Eating Out From Our Cleveland Occupational Therapists, Dec. 28, 2019, Cleveland Occupational Therapy Blog