Non-pharmacological management of problematic sleeping in children with developmental disabilities

Karen Spruyt*, Leopold M. G. Curfs

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Aim Sleep is important for underlying neural plasticity, and children with developmental disabilities suffer behavioural, emotional, cognitive, and sensory-motor issues that affect their wake and sleep states. Problematic sleeping can be hypothesized to have adverse effects on both of these areas in children with developmental disabilities. With this review, we aim to provide a benchmark in managing problematic sleeping in children with developmental disabilities. MethodA literature search was conducted and data on the study descriptives, patient characteristics, study design, study-related factors, criteria applied to operationalize sleep and developmental disability, and sleep management' were collected. Each management strategy was tabulated and analysed. ResultsWe identified 90 studies involving 1460 children with developmental disabilities, of whom 61.6% were male. The highest proportion of studies, almost half, were in children with syndromes (44.4%), followed by studies in children with intellectual disabilities (18.9%). Non-pharmacological sleep management was primarily aimed at improving sleep quality (86.7%), followed by sleep-wake schedules and, to a certain extent, sleep regularity (42.2%). About 56.7% of the studies reported more than one approach. Studies mostly focused on disorders of initiating and maintaining sleep through a diversity of strategies and relied heavily on subjective measures to identify and monitor problematic sleeping. Sleep management approaches were primarily delivered at the level of the individual in the home setting. The number of management approaches per study was unrelated to the number of sleep problems discussed. InterpretationModifying sleep management strategies to meet the specific needs of children with developmental disabilities is encouraged, and studies that look beyond sleep quality or sleep quantity are required. It is also advocated that modifications to sleep hygiene, sleep regularity, and sleep ecology in a population with developmental disabilities are rigorously investigated. Finally, daytime somnolence should not be overlooked when aiming to optimize sleep in children with developmental disabilities across the ages and stages of their lives. There were several limitations in the research findings of problematic sleep in children with developmental disabilities. In general, the sleep problems and the developmental disabilities investigated were multicomponent in nature. It is likely that management approaches impacted those problems on multiple levels or through diverse therapeutic' pathways. There is a need for randomized controlled trials and more objective measures that quantify improved sleep or wake states.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)120-136
JournalDevelopmental Medicine and Child Neurology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2015

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