3 Triggers of Poor Sleep in Children with Special Needs

Updated: Aug 17


Sleep is a complex behavior regulated by both the brain and body. The brain has to make sure that your eyes are closed when you're sleeping, which requires it to send signals to keep your eyelids from fluttering open. It also has to keep your muscles relaxed, so they don't spasm at night, which can cause you to wake up too early in the morning with sore muscles (and possibly even more trouble).

The body also plays its role: it needs time for rest after being active all day; otherwise, it will feel tired and cranky throughout the day—which can directly lead to poor sleep quality at night!

Hence, good sleep is a critical part of living a healthy life. Some children with special needs have difficulty sleeping because of their condition, but other factors can affect your child's ability to get adequate rest at night.

Here are three primary triggers for poor sleep:

  • Circadian rhythm triggers. Children with special needs are often in a constant transition state, and their bodies respond to this by slowing down their normal sleep-wake cycles. This can lead to poor sleep because they're not able to get their full amount of rest each night.

  • Homeostatic triggers. Some children have sensory issues that make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night (for example, they might have trouble falling asleep due to anxiety).

  • Wakefulness-sleep triggers: If your child has trouble falling asleep but then wakes up during the middle of the night and can't fall back asleep again, this may be a wakefulness-sleep trigger.

Circadian Rhythm Triggers

circadian rhythm day and night with brain and alarm clock

The circadian rhythm is your body's internal clock, which helps you to feel alert and awake during the day. It gets its cues from sunlight, social cues (like when someone enters or leaves a room), food, and exercise. Factors that affect circadian rhythms in children with special needs include:

  • Visual, auditory, or tactile stimulation (e.g., toys) in the late afternoon or early evening hours may disrupt a child's sleep if they are not used to these stimuli during this time period.

  • For example, watching TV shows or playing video games all night long can result in poor sleep quality because it disrupts their normal nighttime sequences.

Homeostatic Sleep Triggers

baby drinking milk from a bottle

Homeostatic sleep triggers are the need for sleep that builds up over time. They're your body's way of telling you that it needs to rest or wake up, and the following factors can increase them:

  • Stress and anxiety

  • Lack of sunlight or physical activity (exercising before bedtime may help)

Homeostatic triggers are the triggers that cause sleepiness or wakefulness. It includes hunger or thirst, caffeine from food or beverages (especially chocolate), and exercise. For example, if your child is hungry, they will ask for something to eat even when it's midnight or if they get thirsty or need to pee. Eating lots of chocolate can also make your child energetic due to caffeine.

Wakefulness-Sleep Triggers

scared child hiding under the blankets

The third trigger of poor sleep in children with special needs is wakefulness-sleep triggers. These events wake you up in the middle of the night or morning and may be related to pain, anxiety, or boredom. They also include waking up due to fear or feeling like something bad will happen if you don't get back to sleep right away.

This type of waking is more common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) than other conditions such as ADHD or developmental disabilities; however, it can occur at any age regardless of diagnosis. If a child has difficulty falling asleep because they have too much stimulation during the day, they will likely struggle to stay asleep when it's time for bedtime as well!

Wakefulness-sleep triggers are the most common trigger of poor sleep in children with special needs. These triggers include:

  • The child's sleep environment (e.g., too much light, noise or activity)

  • The child's behavior (e.g., crying/whining)

  • A medical condition that causes difficulty staying asleep or waking up times later than usual (e.g., diabetes)


We hope we've helped you to understand the complexity of sleep in children with special needs. The best way to ensure they get the sleep they need is by observing and understanding their triggers, then using them as a starting point for treatment. Keep an eye on these three factors and try not to let them get out of control! If you want to know how to manage these triggers, you can check out this step-by-step guide on how to get your high needs to sleep. You can also find more tips in this article about 5 Quick Tips to Make Bedtime Easier for Children with Special Needs.

I hope this information has helped you understand what causes poor sleep in your child with special needs!

If you have any questions or concerns about your child's sleeping habits, please feel free to get in touch with us at https://www.theslumberacademy.com/contact

Unhappy, sleepless nights? Look no further. The Slumber Academy's Sleep Services Packages for Neurodivergent Children make slumber easy! We help children of all ages with sleep issues by treating them like our own, whether it be frequent night wakings, short naps, or early rising. We ease the transition from co-sleeping and offer safe, gentle ways to solve sleep issues. Also, we will provide you with the tools and resources to allow you to assist your child in achieving a peaceful bedtime. Check out our sleep services packages, and feel free to Contact Us now!