Good Sleep Habits for Preemies and Babies with Special Needs

May 27, 2015


We all need sleep.

Why is it sometimes so hard to get?

I expected to be sleep deprived after I brought home my newborn. What I didn’t expect was the ways that having a preemie and then later, a baby with special needs, also complicated their sleep habits. I had far less control over my babies’ sleep schedules than I ever imagined.

My first son was born six weeks early due to severe preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome. He spent three weeks in the NICU learning how to breathe and eat on his own. In addition to obsessing about those things, I found myself worrying about his sleep patterns due to the structured NICU schedule. Even though I knew his tiny body needed calories even more than it needed sleep, waking him up to eat didn’t seem natural to me. It wasn’t until he was home and had chunked up that I started to try and establish some good sleep habits.

healthysleephabitsI followed Marc Weisbluth’s advice in his book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Weisbluth’s research on sleep was helpful to me and his strategies mostly worked for my son. It was especially helpful that he included information on how to adapt and change sleep patterns for preemies accordingly.

I recommend this book. If you choose to read it, try to think of it as a resource and skip to the chapters that are relevant to you rather than reading it cover-to-cover. Your sleep-deprived self will thank you.

When my second child was born with special needs, his medical complications interfered with sleep far more frequently than I would have liked. He came home on a feeding tube, severe reflux, and intermittent and unexplained pain. Because we were so desperate to get calories in him, we fed him continuous overnight feeds on a feeding pump for months after he came home from the NICU. Imagine, someone pushing food into your belly all night long as you are trying to sleep. It was very uncomfortable for him, and of course didn’t help his reflux. It caused him to wake up every single morning at 3:30 am like clockwork. There was no soothing him back down. Eventually we ditched the overnight feeding pump and figured out a way to get more calories in him during the day. Once he wasn’t suffering overnight, he started sleeping better.

I quickly discovered however, that sleep tactics which worked for my firstborn, did not work for my special needs baby. I haven’t found much written on dealing with sleep issues in special needs kids, or kids with exceptional medical complications so I reached out to Lori Strong of Strong Little Sleepers to learn more. She emphasized that whatever the cause of your child’s sleep issue, many problems can be addressed by placing more emphasis on establishing healthy sleep hygiene for your child.

Here are some of Lori Strong’s tips for good sleep hygiene:

  • littlestrongsleepersCreate a consistent daily sleep routine for naps and bedtime
  • Use a longer wind down routine
  • Establish an earlier bedtime, as it can often help children fall asleep better on their own
  • Make the environment conducive to sleep by making it dark and using a white noise machine
  • Keep the sleep space consistent

Lori also said, “If you don’t believe your child is capable, they will not be.” This spoke straight my heart. I spend so much time focusing on what my son can’t do, rather than believing in what he can and will do. This applies to sleep too. I need to set him up well and expect that he will eventually accomplish, and perhaps master, this life skill. And I know that if nothing works, I can reach out to a certified sleep consultant like Lori or a sleep doctor for extra help. There is comfort in knowing support is available.

Although our family has overcome some of our early sleep challenges, I’m realizing that each age and developmental stage brings on new challenges. I am by no means a sleep expert, just a mom who is concerned about and committed to everyone in our family getting enough. I’ve learned that developing good sleep habits involves a little bit of trial and error and a whole lot of consistency. And huge changes may not, literally, happen overnight.

Each baby is different. Some babies will make sleep easy for everyone. Some babies will make it harder. And in the case of preemies and special needs kiddos, you may have an elevated level of worry and frustration. Be patient with yourself and your child as you are still getting to know one another. You will find the things that work best for your family. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help if you need to.



Learn more about Strong Little Sleepers or contact Lori for help with your child’s sleep issues.