Overcoming sleep problems for children with Down syndrome
Amanda Wood and Ben Sacks
This article reviews the incidence of sleep problems in children with Down
syndrome and introduces readers to the link between behavioural problems and the
quality of children’s sleep. Practical suggestions about how parents can improve
the bedtime routine and their responses to night-time awakenings are provided.
The article concludes with a brief review of evidence that supports the use of
behaviour management in order to decrease learnt sleep problems. The final page
provides photocopiable resources to help parents to chart each stage of the
process of overcoming unacceptable bedtime behaviours and sleep problems.
Wood A, Sacks B. Overcoming sleep problems for children with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome News and Update. 2004;3(4);118-127.
This article reviews the incidence of sleep problems in children with Down syndrome
and introduces readers to the link between behavioural problems and the quality
of children's sleep. Practical suggestions about how parents can improve the bedtime
routine and their responses to night-time awakenings are provided. The article concludes
with a brief review of evidence that supports the use of behaviour management in
order to decrease learnt sleep problems. The final page provides photocopiable resources
to help parents to chart each stage of the process of overcoming unacceptable bedtime
behaviours and sleep problems (see pdf version).
Studies of sleep disturbance in children with Down syndrome, by Rebecca Stores and
colleagues, have reported a high incidence of sleep problems in children with Down
syndrome.[1-3] There are two main underlying
causes of sleep problems, namely physical or breathing-related sleep problems,
which are particularly common in children with Down syndrome when compared with
children with other types of learning disability, and behavioural sleep problems,
which can be successfully managed using behaviour modification techniques.
Incidence of sleeping disorders and difficulties
The figures in Table 1 indicate how common night-time problems
are among children with Down syndrome. In the group of 7-11 year olds, four children
in ten have difficulties in settling at bedtime, and half of the children still
wake at night. By the late teenage years, the figures illustrate considerable improvement
but one or two teenagers in ten still have settling or night waking difficulties.
7 - 14 years
11 - 17 years
11 - 20 years
Settling at bedtime
Wakes at night
Sleeps with parents
Sleeps with sibling
Based on data from the Manchester  and Hampshire  studies
Table 1. Percentage of children with Down syndrome with
Studies in Hampshire have assessed the sleep patterns and sleep routines of 91 children
with Down syndrome; 51 boys and 40 girls, in four age groups, twenty 4-7 year olds,
thirty-one 8-11 year olds, sixteen 12-15 year olds and fourteen 16-19 year olds.
Three other groups of children, of the same age range, were involved in the study
- their similarly aged typically developing siblings
- typically developing children from families without a child with a disability
- children with similar levels of learning disability but not Down syndrome.
The data indicated that the two groups of children with disabilities had significantly
more sleep problems in comparison with the groups of typically developing children.
There were no significant differences in the sleep patterns of the siblings of children
with Down syndrome and the children from families without a child with a disability.
This indicates that the families of children with Down syndrome had no more difficulties
with their other children than other families.
The figures in Table 2 show the comparison between the sleep
difficulties of the children with Down syndrome and the typically developing age-matched
comparison group. The figures illustrate that the sleep disturbances of children
with Down syndrome fall into two main categories, which the researchers describe
as 'physical' and 'behavioural' problems. There was a tendency for the children
with learning disabilities, other than Down syndrome, to show more behavioural sleep
problems such as difficulties with the bedtime routine, sleeping alone, early waking
and night waking but less physical or breathing-related sleep disturbances than
the children with Down syndrome.
Disorders of initiating and maintaining sleep
Children with Down syndrome
Typically developing children
Waking in night
Reluctant to go to bed
Insists on sleeping with someone
Features of breathing disorders at night
Sleeps with neck extended
Other disorders/behaviours during sleep
Has own room
Has bedtime routine
Total sleep time (hours) - mean (S.D.)
Table 2. Percentage of children with sleep difficulties
- Hampshire study 
Sleep problems with a physical cause
Children with Down syndrome are particularly vulnerable to sleep apnoea,
that is, disordered breathing during sleep. They may be heard to snore, cough, choke
and exhibit signs of restlessness, unusual sleeping positions, excessive sweating
and periods when breathing is observed to stop. A typical apnoeic episode is when
a child stops breathing altogether for a short period of time and then suddenly
resumes breathing with rapid gulping for air. Apnoeic episodes may not affect the
amount of time spent sleeping; however, they may affect the quality of sleep. One
of the important consequences of sleep apnoea is that it results in a periodic reduction
in the amount of oxygen carried in the blood and this may have a deleterious effect
on health and development.
There are two main types of sleep apnoea: obstructive sleep apnoea and
central sleep apnoea. Obstructive sleep apnoea is much the commonest form
of sleep apnoea and is characterised by partial obstruction of the upper airways,
which tend to be smaller in children with Down syndrome, for example by enlarged
tonsils and/or adenoids. The cause of the obstruction is usually treated through
surgery and this tends to be very successful. Central sleep apnoea is a much more
rare condition and is caused by neurological disorders of breathing control. The
cause of the problem in these cases is much harder to treat; however, the symptoms
may be alleviated if the child wears an oxygen mask at night.
Parents who have observed symptoms suggesting sleep apnoea should ask to have their
child referred to a sleep laboratory where a detailed diagnosis can be made. It
may be helpful to explain to the family doctor that apnoea is particularly common
in children with Down syndrome, as health professionals often have little awareness
of sleep disorders and this condition is generally under-diagnosed in the general
Sleep problems with a behavioural cause
Behavioural sleep problems can be broadly sub-divided into:
- sleep onset difficulties: reluctance to go to bed, inability to settle
without a parent being present, insisting on sleeping with someone
- sleep maintenance difficulties: night waking problems, waking and getting
up earlier than the family's accepted rising time.
These problems generally occur when the child has not had the opportunity to learn
a more acceptable sleep pattern. Generally, where patterns of behaviour have been
learnt, they can be unlearnt and replaced with new behaviours.
Effects of sleep problems on daytime behaviour
Research by Rebecca Stores and colleagues indicates a link between sleep disturbance,
the occurrence of daytime behaviour difficulties and the children's mothers' stress
levels.[1-3] Sleep can be disrupted for a number
of reasons as outlined above. However, the effects on children's daytime behaviour
are similar; they may show signs of irritability, aggression and hyperactivity.
In addition, if the quality of children's sleep is disrupted it may well affect
their concentration span, and therefore their ability to learn.
The research indicated that children with sleep maintenance problems had significantly
worse daytime behaviour ratings and their mothers had higher stress levels than
the children with sleep onset problems or breathing-related sleep disturbance. Night waking seems, then, to have the most serious
consequences for the child and the family.
These facts indicate that, for a child with Down syndrome who is exhibiting daytime
behavioural problems, it is of utmost importance to assess the quality and quantity
of his or her sleep, as a programme designed to improve the child's sleep may also
have the effect of improving his or her daytime behaviour too. It should also be
noted that sleep difficulties can be very stressful for the whole family and may
lead to interference with the parent-child interaction, maternal malaise, sleep,
fatigue and stress, marital discord and even abuse.[7, p.581]
Parents who are stressed and sleep-deprived themselves, as a result of tending to
a child with sleep difficulties, may find it difficult to implement consistent and
appropriate behaviour management strategies in the daytime.
Treating sleep disturbance is of the greatest importance to ensure good quality
of life for parents and children alike.
Changing behavioural sleep problems
Behavioural sleep problems will respond to behaviour modification techniques. The
following section deals with some of the behaviour issues involved and it outlines
some specific techniques that have been employed to manage behavioural sleep difficulties.
The first step in addressing any sleep problem is to keep a sleep diary
(see p.126 for photocopiable example), recording the antecedents (details
of the physical and social environment that may trigger the problem), the target
behaviours themselves, (exactly what happens and how often) and finally,
the consequences (what happens immediately after the target behaviour).
This will help with identifying unintentional reinforcement and act as a baseline
with which to compare behaviour after the implementation of the behaviour management
There are a number of general principles that will help parents to establish good
bedtime behaviour, preventing the occurrence of behavioural sleep problems. These
principles are often referred to as 'sleep hygiene', that is, "conditions and
practices that promote effective sleep".[12, p.26]
Before examining these principles, it is important to note that painful physical
conditions, such as otitis media, can be the underlying cause of reluctance
to settle and/or frequent night awakenings. In a child who does not have an additional
behavioural sleep problem, the disturbance should subside once the child's physical
ailment has been treated and he or she has recovered from the temporary period of
illness. Secondly, children's sleep may be affected by emotional instability. In
this case, the priority should be to identify the cause of the child's anxiety and
Establishing good bedtime and sleep behaviour
Clear and regular routine
Children need to be clear about the activities that happen in the morning, in the
day, in the evening and at night. They need to be woken in the morning and put to
bed at night at the same time every day and this needs to be kept as constant as
possible at weekends and during holidays. Parents need to decide on a routine set
of activities that should happen before bedtime, lasting no more than about half
an hour and stick to these activities in the same order, at the same time and for
the same duration every evening. It is vital that both parents agree on the bedtime
routine so that they are consistent in the way that they manage bedtime. Children
with Down syndrome will be helped to understand the routine if they are given visual
prompts, such as an egg-timer to time their last game or story, photographs or picture
cards of each stage of the routine that they can put in the correct order, or home-made
picture books about the bedtime routine in their family.
Feeding at bedtime or during the night
Infants and children need to learn that feeding happens in the day and not at night
from as young an age as possible. Parents should seek advice from their health visitor
or family doctor about how many hours they can expect their baby with Down syndrome
to sleep without a feed, as this will depend on the baby's health and weight. Once
you have decided that the baby should sleep for more than approximately four hours
in a night, bottles should not be given to pacify the baby who wakes in the night
since this actually reinforces night waking. Sometimes a small feed just before
the parents are ready to go to bed may help the baby to sleep for longer, before
waking for a feed.
Parents of older children should restrict cola and chocolate and other caffeine-rich
foods or drinks in the hours before bedtime.
Put them to bed when they are tired
As a rule, children should go to bed when they are tired, so that they fall asleep
soon after they have been put to bed. This will help the child to make an association
between the bedroom and activities such as brushing their teeth and changing into
their pyjamas and feeling sleepy. Children requiring an afternoon nap should have
this earlier rather than later to ensure that they are tired again by bedtime.
Although it is important for the child to go to bed when they are tired, this does
not mean that the bedtime routine should be disrupted just because the child does
not seem to be tired. It is imperative that if the family have decided that a child's
bedtime should be seven o'clock, then they should go to their bedroom at seven o'clock
Parents should be wary of playing active games before bedtime in an attempt to make
the children feel tired and ready to sleep. Physical 'rough and tumble' play or
games such as chase can get out of hand before bedtime and may create a noisy, boisterous
atmosphere that does not lead to feelings of relaxation and readiness for sleep.
Also, if behaviour becomes out of control a tired parent may react negatively to
the child by shouting and sending them to their room. If the child goes to bed angry,
confused and/or tearful, then it is these feelings that will becomes associated
with the bedroom, with the effect of increasing any existing behavioural sleep problems.
This said, a degree of controlled physical exertion such as a ball game may help
some children rid themselves of excess energy in readiness for bed.
The physical environment
All behaviours take place within a physical and social environment and it is vital
to consider the role that the environment plays in how behaviour is learnt. Firstly,
let us consider the physical environment of the child's bedroom where the desired
behaviours will take place. The room should be safe and secure. It should neither
be too warm, nor too cold, and as quiet and as dark as possible. Many children refuse
to go to bed with the light off, but it is important that the room is darkened as
the onset of sleep is affected by the natural cycle of light and dark and artificial
light can disrupt the sleep/wake cycle. However, commercially available nightlights
do not disturb sleep. The room should be tidy and free from stimulating toys that
might encourage the child to get out of bed and play. It should also be safe so
that if the child's behaviour deteriorates and the behaviour programme dictates
that the child must stay in their room, he or she will not come to any harm.
As children with Down syndrome are usually restless sleepers, it is worth putting
them into sleeping suits to ensure that they stay warm enough if they become uncovered
at night. A child who is cold is likely to wake.
The social and emotional environment
The family need to create a relaxing environment with positive connotations so that
the child feels emotionally safe when they are in their room on their own. It is
vital to create a positive atmosphere at bedtime, so that the child looks forward
to preparing for bed, rather than feeling that they are missing out on important
playtime or missing opportunities for attention and play with other family members.
A safe and reassuring environment can be created through playing soft music, cuddling,
talking quietly and reading stories. The child needs to associate the bedroom with
peacefulness and security and therefore this room should not be used for active
play. In addition, the bedroom should not be used for punishment, otherwise the
child may associate the room with negative emotions such as anger and resentment.
Prolonging the bedtime routine is not helpful
Many parents will get the child ready for bed long before the agreed bedtime in
the hope that this will minimise bedtime confrontations. This is not helpful to
the child, as they need to learn to associate each stage of the routine with the
final stage, 'falling asleep'. If the child prolongs the bedtime routine, by getting
up and coming down stairs again, making numerous 'curtain calls', as France and
colleagues put it, the child will not make
the connection between the bedtime ritual and actually falling asleep, as he/she
will have responded to so many other stimuli in between. Therefore, the preparation
for sleep, which might include bath-time, nappy changing or using the toilet, changing
into nightclothes, quietly reading or talking and saying goodnight, needs to be
predictable. Children need to learn each step of the sequence and be reinforced
or rewarded, when they show good bedtime behaviour.
Rewarding good bedtime behaviour
The term 'reinforcer' means anything that is presented after a behaviour and has
the effect of making that behaviour more likely in the future. Therefore, it is
important to find suitable reinforcers so that each time the child displays a desirable
behaviour, parents can reinforce this. Children are all unique and, therefore, will
each be reinforced or rewarded with different things. Praise and affection may be
rewarding to one child, while 'Smarties' or playing a music tape may work for another.
Many children with Down syndrome find social rewards such as praise, verbal interaction,
eye contact, cuddling and singing rewarding but there are some children with Down
syndrome who do not. Parents of the latter group need to experiment and be more
creative in finding rewards that work for their children, for example stickers of
favourite TV programmes or cereal packet freebies.
Once a suitable reward has been discovered, this can be used to reward good bedtime
behaviour. When you give rewards you need to use positive language and identify
the behaviour that is being rewarded, e.g. "well done, you went straight upstairs
when it was seven o'clock". Children with Down syndrome have a specific language
delay; therefore it may be helpful to use visual aids in order for the child to
'see what you mean'. You could use a star chart with pictures of the desirable behaviours,
e.g. a clock face showing bedtime or a photo of the child asleep in bed with a space
next to it for the stars. Children should always be reassured that if they did not
meet the criteria for a reward 'this time', they can still get rewards at another
Sleep-onset and sleep maintenance problems
Box 1. Sleep hygiene
- Keep regular 'bedtimes' including weekends and holidays where possible.
- Make sure the child knows that they should not disturb other members of their family
until after an acceptable time.
- Do not give food or bottles during the night to get a child to go back to sleep
unless they still require night feeds due to their age, size or health.
- Do not put children to bed while they are still hungry (giving babies a feed before
the parents retire can encourage them to sleep for longer without needing a feed).
- Do not allow cola, chocolate or other caffeine rich foods or drinks before bedtime.
- If a child requires an afternoon nap, schedule it for the early afternoon as opposed
to late afternoon.
- Avoid stimulating activities in the hour before bedtime.
- Make sure the child's room is quiet, dark and maintained at a comfortable temperature,
neither too warm nor too cold; it may be useful to ensure that the air is not too
- Create an atmosphere that is relaxing, that makes the child feel safe and secure;
the bedroom should not be used for lively, stimulating activities and play, at least
not in the hours before bedtime.
- Attempts should be made not to create associations between bedtime, the bedroom
and negative emotions, e.g. the bedroom should not be used for punishment.
- Do not prolong the bedtime routine; the child needs to associate the start of the
routine with the final stage, the feeling of being about to fall asleep.
- Reward good bedtime behaviour using a star-chart or another form of reward system.
- Do not reinforce settling and waking problems by giving into demands for drinks,
food, stories and so on in an attempt to avoid confrontation. Requests to go to
the toilet should be allowed, within reason, but verbal interaction and eye contact
should be kept to a minimum.
Sleep onset problems include reluctance to go to bed, inability to settle without
a parent's presence and insisting on sleeping with another family member. Settling
problems generally occur when the child has failed to learn how to fall asleep without
an adult in the room with them. Many children do not sleep all the way through the
night but a child can be said to have a sleep maintenance problem if he or she wakes
in the night and is not able to resettle him or herself without a parent's presence.
These problems often arise when the child has associated the attention given by
parents with the onset of sleep and has not learnt that he or she can fall asleep
on his or her own. Children with sleep onset and sleep maintenance problems often
present a range of avoidance behaviours such as asking for the toilet, food, drinks
or stories in order to keep their parents with them longer. This is rewarding in
two ways. Firstly, the additional attention is rewarding in itself, and secondly,
it prevents them from experiencing the thing they dislike the most, being left on
their own in their bedroom. In addition, they may shout and cry constantly until
the parent comes to their room. If they are mobile, they may find their way downstairs
or into the parents' bedroom to seek comfort and attention.
Many parents fall into a 'behavioural trap'
by giving in to the child's demands, e.g. letting them fall asleep downstairs with
the rest of the family, or in the parents' own bed with them. Parents of children
with settling problems learn to anticipate confrontation at bedtime, responding
with agitation and trepidation as soon as bedtime approaches. They reinforce undesirable
behaviours by giving in to their child's demands, as they have learnt that this
will help them to avoid confrontation and leads to peace and quiet in the short
term. The more times the child experiences this sequence of events (wake, cry, comfort,
sleep), the more resistant the behaviour will be to change.
However, any learnt behaviour can be unlearnt under the correct circumstances and
parents should always remember this. With commitment and support from friends, family
and professionals, parents can change their children's behaviour.
Unlearning problem behaviours
Behavioural sleep problems can be solved by combining good sleep hygiene and a clear
bedtime routine with the behavioural principles of extinction of undesirable behaviours
and positive reinforcement of desirable behaviours. Extinction occurs when the link
between behaviour and consequence is broken and the child 'unlearns' the behaviour.
Keeping a sleep diary, listing antecedent, behaviours and consequences, will help
the family to analyse what the reinforcers might be. This will help them to realise
the effect of their own behaviour on the child and help them to realise that they
are also in a position to elicit desirable behaviour from them.
The next step is to decide exactly what they would like the bedtime routine to consist
of, e.g. exact bedtimes, length of time to be spent with the child and so on.
Parents also need to decide exactly what role they will play in the bedtime routine,
remembering that the way they respond to the child will determine whether or not
behaviours become more or less likely in the future. The decisions made at this
point will form the behavioural management plan and will depend on what the parents
find acceptable, realistic and practical. Whatever the plan consists of, it should
be agreed between both parents, as it is imperative to the success of the programme
that all family members adhere to the agreement. Also, a professional in the field
of behaviour management should support families wherever possible.
Parents then need to decide when to start the programme. It is best to start the
new programme as soon as possible. Starting before a break of a few days such as
weekend will minimise the effects of any initial sleepless nights on the parents'
working lives. Other people living in the same house or even next door will need
to be informed of the proposed plan and asked for their patience and cooperation,
as the child may cry for longer than usual. The parents will also need to plan how
they will respond to reluctant relatives, who may have their own ideas about the
usefulness of the programme, remembering that keeping extended family onside will
be beneficial in the long run. They also need to consider what they will do if the
child is genuinely ill and requires additional comfort and attention.
Extinction and Positive Reinforcement: the keys to effective change
In order to extinguish undesirable behaviours that occur when a child has not learnt
to settle or re-settle by him or herself, parents need to ensure that they do not
inadvertently reward the child with social rewards such as attention, social interaction
or displays of emotion or with material rewards such as TV, drinks or snacks. These
things act as rewards when they are given immediately after the target behaviour.
When the child cries out in the night, parents should consistently ignore the cries
and give the child a chance to settle him or herself without an adult present. The
age of the child will affect this firm strategy as a child still in a cot can be
left to cry, while a child in a bed is likely to get out. Every time the child gets
out of bed, comes down stairs or into the parents' room, he or she must be returned
to bed, with no display of emotion and without verbal interaction or eye contact.
Any attention that the child does receive must be limited to the activity being
undertaken such as giving a feed, changing a nappy or taking the child to the toilet.
The atmosphere should remain still and quiet and lighting should be as dim as possible.
For a child in a cot, the strict version is to simply leave them to cry until they
fall asleep, and the time spent crying should reduce each night. This can work quite
quickly – e.g child cries for 90 minutes on the first night, 30 minutes on the second
night, 10 minutes on the third night and thereafter settles without crying. However,
many parents find this hard to do, so controlled ignoring or controlled crying is
a plan they may prefer – see next page.
New learning for old: replacement activities
Parents may also wish to consider training the older child to carry out a different
behaviour when they wake up rather than crying and shouting or coming to look for
them. The replacement behaviour should be something that the child can do independently
that will help them relax, e.g. older children could be taught to count stars or
smiley face stickers stuck onto their ceiling, or to press the 'play' button in
order to listen to a short audio-tape of soothing music or a story, that will turn
itself off when it has finished. It is vital that these new behaviours are rewarded
whenever they lead to the child managing to resettle him or herself, without adult
intervention. Slowly the child will learn to associate the new behaviour with the
onset of sleep.
Monitoring the effectiveness of the plan
Box 2. Key considerations when planning a sleep programme
1. Keep a 'sleep diary' [see p.126] as this will help you to produce your behaviour
modification programme and it will allow you to see how well the plan is working.
2. Decide on an exact bedtime routine, that is acceptable to both parents, based
on the principles of good sleep hygiene, (see Box 1).
3. Decide on a course of action that is acceptable to both parents, e.g. systematic
ignoring, controlled ignoring with 5 minute checking, systematic ignoring with parental
presence. They both need to feel that they can be committed and consistent in their
4. Be warned: breaking the programme can sabotage any good effects that have been
achieved and repeated failed efforts can lead to problems that can become resistant
to change; both parents must be committed to the existing programme.
5. Start the programme at a time that is convenient to both parents, when there
are as few other stressors impacting on family life as possible.
6. Inform other people living in the same house and neighbours, of the introduction
of the behaviour management programme because the initial stages of most programmes
are often associated with increased disturbance.
7. Decide what action will be taken if the child is ill, i.e. whether to stop the
programme or not; if the programme is stopped, it is essential to resume the programme
as soon as possible.
8. Practise how you will explain your decisions to reluctant friends or relatives
who may disagree with your chosen course of action.
9. Regularly monitor the quality and quantity of desirable and undesirable behaviours
presented by the child, in order to measure the success of the plan; remember behaviour
is likely to become 'worse before it gets better'. This is called the post extinction
Once the behaviour programme has been implemented, it is vital to monitor its effectiveness
by keeping records. Counting the number or duration of undesirable behaviours and
charting progress each night, will help parents to see whether improvements have
been made, no matter how small. It is important to realise that consistent application
of the programme will work but it is not possible to predict how long it might take.
Parents often wonder how long they should continue to proceed with a behaviour plan
before modifying their approach. This, too, is an impossible question to answer,
as some behaviours can take a very long time to extinguish, but will diminish if
the programme is rigidly adhered to. One thing that should be remembered is that
behaviour will not change and may in fact increase, if the parents and others involved
with the child do not apply the programme rigorously. Therefore, it may be important
to modify the programme when the family feel that they can no longer implement it
consistently. Behaviours may diminish very slowly, but careful monitoring will allow
parents to observe even small changes. Finally, it is important to remember that
it is not the magnitude of change that is important; it is the direction.
Variations on the technique
The use of sedative medication in children with sleep problems, especially of the
onset type, can be very useful in helping to bring to an end inappropriate pre-sleep
behaviours, and they quite frequently shorten the time taken for sleep programmes
Sedative-type antihistaminics such as diphenhydramine (Nytol) have the advantage
that they are relatively short-acting, used in the correct dose, and are, generally,
It is important to emphasise that sedative medication should only be used for short
periods of time (days to weeks) and always in conjunction with a behaviour
Parents who feel that they would be unable to consistently ignore the child can
try a variety of more gradual approaches although it will take longer for the undesirable
behaviours to become extinct. They may choose to carry out controlled ignoring
or controlled crying. This approach involves checking the child every five
minutes after he or she has been put to bed. At each five-minute check, the child
should be resettled if necessary with minimum interaction. The time between checks
can be extended to 7, 10, 15 minutes until the child sleeps.
Systematic ignoring with parental presence
Another approach, described by France and colleagues,
that can be used with a child who is extremely resistant to being left to fall asleep
without a parent present is systematic ignoring with parental presence.
This method is suitable so long as the parent is prepared to sleep in the child's
room for no more than seven nights. Once the bedtime routine has been completed
and the parent has said goodnight, the parent gets into a second bed (a makeshift
bed consisting of blankets and cushions on the floor is fine). The parent should
lie still, cuddle up to a toy, and pretend to fall asleep. They should continue
to keep up the act, even if the child cries and tries to get attention. Once the
child has settled, the parent can get up and continue whatever they want to do for
the rest of the evening. If the child wakes and cries again the parent should go
back to the room, return the child to his or her own bed, as described above, and
pretend to fall asleep in the makeshift bed again, getting up when the child has
returned to sleep. When the parent is ready for bed, he or she should sleep in the
same room as the child and pretend to carry on sleeping whenever the child wakes
and cries. For the programme to work, the child must be aware of the parent's presence
so it is important that it is not too dark and the parents may need to emit the
odd grunt or cough to remind the child that they are still there. After one week,
the parent should go back to sleeping in their own room and further night-waking
and settling problems should be dealt with the systematic ignoring and positive
reinforcement techniques described above.
'Getting worse before it gets better' and 'spontaneous recovery'
Behaviours often 'get worse before they get better' and this is called the post
extinction response burst. However, parents must persevere and remain consistent
in their approach. Behaviours will only become extinct if the link between behaviour
and reward can be broken. This takes time and many repeated experiences. Children
with Down syndrome generally need more practice to learn a new skill and this suggests
that they make take longer than children without a learning disability to learn
new bedtime and sleep behaviours.
The probability of a behaviour recurring becomes even more likely when it is partially
reinforced (rewarded some of the time). This means that if the behaviour management
programme is broken, i.e. a parent gives in and lets the child have 'just one more
story' after the cut-off time or lets him or her sleep in their bed just once, the
probability of the undesirable behaviour will become even greater and the good effects
will be sabotaged. In fact, the damaging effects of repeated unsuccessful attempts
at systematic ignoring can be severe and long lasting.
Sometimes it is possible for behaviours that had apparently become extinguished
to reappear. Psychologists call this 'spontaneous recovery'. For this reason, a
child who has learnt an acceptable sleep routine and whose sleep problems have been
resolved, may have a period of sleep problems at some point in the future. If this
does happen, a behaviour management programme should be reinstituted until the acceptable
bedtime-behaviour has been regained.
The early riser
Early rising is a common problem in children with Down syndrome, affecting just
under one in five children (17%). In this
instance, parents need to be very clear about what is an acceptable hour for the
child to get out of bed or come out of their room. If the child gets up before the
decided time this should be dealt with in the same way as any night-waking, i.e.
returning the child to their room, with the minimum of verbal interaction, eye contact
or emotional response. The child should be rewarded for 'staying in his or her own
room' (note the positive use of language, as opposed 'not coming into mummy's
room'). Once the child learns that disturbing other members of the family before
the accepted time does not result in attention or entertainment, and that commencing
the morning routine at the correct hour is rewarded, the problem should diminish.
Evaluating the effectiveness of behavioural management programmes for sleep problems
The application of principles of sleep hygiene, extinction and positive reinforcement
have been effective in reducing the incidence of behavioural sleep problems in children
with a range of severe learning difficulties and this has also had the effect of
improving parent/child relationships and the mental state of the parents. In a study of three boys aged 5-10 years with
an intellectual disability and sleep problems, parents were taught how to apply
the basic behavioural principles. After
the intervention, the boys, who had previously needed a parent present to fall asleep,
were settling themselves independently. Sleep maintenance problems were also reduced,
but not as successfully, and the quantity and quality of sleep increased. Morning
waking times also became more acceptable. The improvements were still apparent three
months later. The evidence was less conclusive with regard to any associated improvement
in daytime behaviour. However, as daytime behavioural problems are more highly associated
with night waking rather than sleep onset problems, [5-6]
the less effective reduction of night waking in one of the boys may have accounted
for this finding. It should be remembered that this is a very small-scale study
and therefore results should not be generalised. The studies outlined below have
much larger samples and provide a better indication of the potential of behaviour
management programmes to improve children's sleep patterns.
A 12-16 week programme led by health visitors trained in behaviour management proved
to be successful in decreasing the sleep problems of 60 children with severe learning
disabilities. 80% of the parents suggested that there was a marked improvement in
their child's sleep behaviour, 16% described the improvement as moderate and 4%
noted a slight improvement. The effects were long lasting as, six months after the
training phase, 85% of the children had maintained desirable sleep patterns.
Finally, there is evidence to suggest that successful behavioural management programmes
can have positive effects for parents. Mothers
tended to feel less stressed and more in control. Mothers and fathers were happier
about their own sleep and that of their child.
Quine, L. (1997). Solving children's sleep problems: A step-by-step guide for parents.
Cambridgeshire, UK:Beckett Karlson Ltd.
Ferber, R. (1985). Solve your child's sleep problems. London: Dorling Kindersley.
(Available from Down Syndrome Education International).
- Stores, R., Stores, G., Fellows, B. and Buckley, S. (1998).
Daytime behaviour problems and maternal stress in children with Down syndrome, their
siblings and other intellectually disabled peers. Journal of Intellectual Disability
Research, 42(3), 228-237.
- Stores, R., Stores, G., Fellows, B. and Buckley, S. (1998).
A factor analysis of sleep problems and their psychological associations in children
with Down syndrome. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities,
- Stores, R., Stores, G. and Buckley, S. (1996). The pattern
of sleep problems in children with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.
Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 9(2), 145-158.
- Stores, R., Wiggs, L., and Stores, G. (2000). Management
of sleep disorders in children with learning difficulties. In R. Astor and K. Jeffereys
(Eds) Positive initiatives for people with learning difficulties. London:
- Buckley, S. J. and Sacks, B. (2002). An overview of
the development of teenagers with Down syndrome (11-16 years). Portsmouth,
UK: Down Syndrome Education International. [Open
Access Full Text
- Buckley, S, Bird, G., Sacks, B. and Archer, T. (2002).
A comparison of mainstream and special education for teenagers with Down syndrome;
implications for parents and teachers. Down Syndrome News and Update,
2(2), 46-54. [Open Access Full Text
- France, K.G., Henderson, J.M.T. and Hudson, S.M. (1996).
Fact, Act and Tact A three stage approach to treating the sleep problems of infants
and young children, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinic of North America,
- Stores, R. (1996). Managing children's sleep problems,
Portsmouth Down Syndrome Trust Newsletter, 6(3), 1-7.
- Thackeray, E.J and Richdale, A.L. (2002). The behavioural
treatment of sleep difficulties in children with an intellectual disability. Behavioral-Interventions,
- Wiggs, L. and Stores, G. (2001). Behavioural treatment for
sleep problems in children with severe intellectual disabilities and daytime challenging
behaviour: Effect on mothers and fathers. British Journal of Health Psychology.
- Stores, R. and Stores, G. (1996). Research on sleep problems
and psychological function in children with Down syndrome: implications for clinical
practice and everyday care. Down Syndrome Research and Practice, 4(3),
110-112. [Open Access Full Text
- Quine, L. (1997). Solving children's sleep problems;
a step-by-step guide for parents. Cambridgeshire, UK: Beckett Karlson Ltd.
- Turner, S. and Sloper, P. (1996). Behaviour problems among
children with Down's syndrome: Prevalence, persistence and parental appraisal. Journal
of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 9, 129-144.
Mandy Wood is a psychologist, Professor Ben Sacks is a doctor and medical adviser,
both at Down Syndrome Education International. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
DSE's Reading and Language Intervention for Children with Down Syndrome (RLI) is an evidence-based programme designed to teach reading and language skills to children with Down syndrome.
RLI incorporates best practice in structured activities delivered in fast-paced daily teaching sessions. It was evaluated in a randomised controlled trial and found to improve rates of progress compared to ordinary teaching.
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