Although the odd night of poor sleep may not affect daily abilities, persistent sleep problems can have a huge impact on individuals with and without intellectual disability and their friends, families, colleagues and carers. For all individuals, lack of sleep is associated with problems with mood, learning, memory and behaviour.
This article is taken from our Sleep Guide which you can download for free on our website.
Importantly, poor sleep affects motivation and concentration, which means that individuals who are experiencing sleep problems may make more errors at school/work, particularly on repetitive tasks. This means that if your child is struggling on ‘easier’ tasks at school (which are often repeated until they are ready to move on to harder tasks) it is worth speaking to their teacher, who may be under the impression that they are struggling because of their intellectual disability, rather than the sleep issues.
Sleep is also vital to a process called memory consolidation, where memories from the day (e.g. memory of that is learned at school) are strengthened. If sleep is disrupted these memories may not be stored properly, making it harder for children to use what they have already learned during the next day at school.
Poor sleep may also reduce an individual’s ability to cope with changes in their routine. You may notice that your child shows more challenging behaviour (for example, self-injury, aggression, destruction) when they have not slept well the night before. This is common in children with intellectual disability and also in children and adults of typical development! We are all more irritable when we have not slept well and are therefore more likely to show behaviours which indicate that we would like certain tasks to end or situations to change.
Since individuals with intellectual disability may have limited ways to communicate their feelings and preferences, challenging behaviour can be a very effective way of indicating needs or desires (for example for a task to be taken away). It is natural for parents/carers/teachers to want to respond quickly to the challenging behaviour, which means that it is more likely to occur again the next time they want a task to be removed. For more information on mutual reinforcement of challenging behaviour, see “Parent response to waking” on page 10 of our Sleep Guide, and also our factsheet on Managing Challenging Behaviour.
Parents of children with intellectual disability therefore have a lot to do: comforting children with sleeping problems, acting as an advocate for their child’s learning and health, and managing challenging behaviour. Often parents and family members experience a loss of sleep themselves, which can make managing these aspects of parenting more difficult and may even contribute to low mood and impaired concentration.
It may feel as though your child’s sleep problem is out of your control or that you do not have he time/resources to invest in fixing it. However, after thorough assessment, there are some simple intervention strategies available in Part Three of the guide which can help to improve sleep.