Finding Sleep in an Unpredictable Environment: Tips for Parents of Children with Special Needs

Finding Sleep in an Unpredictable Environment- Tips for Parents of Children with Special NeedsThis is a guest post by Megan Kearney, Registered Nurse, with plenty of experience behind-the-hospital-scene. Megan shares 5 tips to help you survive that potentially horrific hospital stay. Caring for your child is hard enough. How do you do it while sleep deprived? These tips help you curb sleep deprivation so that you can get some kind of bearing on your child’s medical situation.

As luxurious as it can sometimes feel, just like food, sleep is a biological need, not a luxury. At the cornerstone of anyone’s peak performance rests sleep.

When thrown into a crisis situation, like an extended stay in hospital with an unwell child, the conditions and environment are just not conducive to a good night’s sleep. In fact, a hospital setting probably contradicts every piece of advice ever shared regarding getting restful sleep. The rooms are bright and noisy, even if you are in a single room you get regular but unpredictable visits from medical staff throughout the night, the air is cold and dry, and the bed? Can we call it a bed?

Assuming your child is in a stable condition but is not yet fit for discharge, how do you go about getting some sleep to ensure your body is functioning well enough to see you through this crisis?


It is quite possible that you’ll be so drained that you’ll have no issue dropping to sleep at night, but staying asleep is a different and frustrating matter. The hospital environment is so very disruptive with flashing lights, beeping machines, and noisy night-shifters outside your room. Once you have been woken your mind will start to race and prevent any further sleep. An invaluable habit that you can create for yourself is to journal. Grab any old notepad, place it beside your bed and as soon as you wake and your mind kicks into gear, write everything down. Very little can be accomplished at 2 am from a hospital room, so writing it down will help you get it out of your head and clear space for sleep. When you wake in the morning, it may not seem as bad as it did through bleary eyes at 2 am, but if it does, it’s time to get delegating and ask for help!


As will be the case with many aspects of your path as a caregiver, you need to try to drop expectations. I do not mean lower them and assume the worst. I mean drop them completely to avoid disappointment and frustration. Expectations in this case may be around the duration and quality of sleep that you are used to. Your norm, for right now, may be to get in any minute of sleep or rest, wherever you possibly can. If this means you see an opportunity for a mid-morning nap, in the x-ray waiting room, throw your expectations out the window, forget what anyone may think and take the nap where you can.

Night-time Schedule

Another good tip is to take note of the general overnight schedule of the ward you’re in, as well as to know the general sleep schedule of your little one. If you know that your child can normally get a good block of sleep from 10 pm to 2 am, and you also know that your nurses normally do their routine checks at 8 pm, 12 am, and 4 am, there is no harm in asking if they have any flexibility in their timing. There is more chance of you sleeping when your child is also sleeping.

Of course, this will not always be an option, sometimes your concerns will not be heard. Quite often, however, we deliver medications and perform observations at a set time, as per protocol, so that our tasks are grouped together, not because a medication will be less effective if not given at, say, midnight. So speak to your nurse at the start of their shift, and it may just get you an extra hour of sleep.


Feed your body correctly and it will work effectively for you in response. Try to avoid placing added stress on your body with inflammatory, processed foods that will be readily available at any hospital. There are certain foods that can either help or hinder your ability to relax and sleep, and when you experience the inevitable decision fatigue of a crisis, what, when, and if you eat, may not be a decision you can wisely make. Take the guess work and decision making out of the process and put a friend or family member on food duty. Make it clear what appliances and facilities you have to work with, and then let them work out the rest.

Some sleep enhancing foods won’t be practical for your environment. Luckily, one of the most powerful things you can add to your diet for sleep and relaxation is Magnesium, and this can be found in easy, preparation-free sources like pumpkin seeds, dried fruit, and … dark chocolate!

Simple Comforts

If you simply can not sleep, here are some simple comforts to promote relaxation and rest:

  • Bring your pillow or blanket from home
  • Try a sleep aide app or guided meditation on your phone. Meditation can be just as restorative as sleep in these situations.
  • White noise maker
  • Eye-mask
  • Ear plugs (quite often the ward will provide these if you ask)
  • Lavender essential oils
  • Sleepy time tea

While these tips are extremely generalized, I do hope you can use them to gain a little extra sleep or relaxation.

If you have questions about your situation specifically, please don’t hesitate to ask, or if you have tips that you have found helpful, please share as you never know who else they might help.


Atkinson, L. (2010). Why a rest is as good for you as a sleep. Retrieved from

Hyman, M. (2014). Magnesium: Meet the Most Powerful Relaxation Mineral Available. [Blog Post] Retrieved from

Nagendra, R. P., Maruthai, N., & Kutty, B. M. (2012). Meditation and Its Regulatory Role on Sleep. Frontiers in Neurology, 3, 54. doi:10.3389/fneur.2012.00054

Purcell, M. (2013). The Health Benefits of Journaling. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 21, 2015, from

Anchoring ChangeMegan is an Aussie with a background in pediatric nursing. While she was extremely passionate about caring for her patients and families, there were some big roadblocks in the way of her helping in the way that she wanted. She is currently taking a break from the hospital setting by travelling and running around the world. She hopes that her experience working with families in crisis can help future families deal with their situations with ease. You can follow her adventures and advice: Twitter @anchoringchangePinterest , Instagram @run_your_travel


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