Children with special needs have a higher rate of sleep disorders

Updated August 2020

Children with disabilities are more likely to have sleep disorders, according to an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (1). The study reported that:

  • 34-86% of children with intellectual disabilities experienced sleep problems. 
  • 25-50% of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) experienced sleep problems.
  • 49-89% of children with autism spectrum disorders experienced sleep problems. 

Snoring most nights is not normal. Snoring can be an indication that a child has sleep apnea/SDB. Sleep apnea is when there are pauses in breathing that cause the child to wake up, at least briefly. Left untreated, sleep apnea can contribute to behavioral problems, learning disabilities and hyperactivity. Chronic (long-term) sleep apnea can also cause heart problems in children, such as pulmonary hypertension.

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, among the risk factors for sleep apnea are Down Syndrome, low birth weight, cerebral palsy, and others (2).

A study by the American College of Chest Physicians found that children who snored loudly were twice as likely to have a learning impairment (3). The consequences of sleep apnea can be so severe that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children who snore be tested for obstructive sleep apnea (4).

Signs of sleep disorders

Signs of sleep apnea and other sleep disorders include the following (2):

  • Snoring
  • Experiencing night terrors
  • Bedwetting or perspiring during sleep
  • Restless sleep
  • Snorting, coughing, or choking
  • Pauses in breathing
  • Mouth breathing

Most children who have sleep apnea but are otherwise healthy respond well to having their tonsils removed. In addition, children with sleep apnea should be encouraged to sleep in a position other than on their backs because this can exacerbate apnea.

Children with autism can have difficulties with their circadian rhythm, the sleep-wake cycle that governs wakefulness and sleep, driving them to stay up late and not get enough sleep.

Though some special needs sleep problems are physiological in nature, such as those related to low muscle tone, many are behavioral, such as habitual night wakings, waking too early in the morning or fighting bedtime. Often, parents may not set the same bedtime limits for children with special needs that they set for other children. Defining clear parameters for sleep–including when bedtime occurs, where a child sleeps, and an acceptable hour to wake in the morning–and gently, yet firmly, enforcing these rules can help get sleep on track for children with special needs.

A sleep study may also be ordered for the child. A sleep study is performed overnight in a sleep lab. The study is called a polysomnogram, and records different sleep stages and any detected problems in a child’s sleep and breathing.

Sometimes physicians may suggest that families invest in particular mattresses or assistive devices for sleep, such as the ones listed here.

Help for families and children with disabilities

Sleep disorders can occur in children with a broad range of disabilities. These disabilities can stem from brain injuries occurring on or near the time of birth, called birth injuries. 

Children with such birth injuries often require lifelong therapy and treatment. If your child suffers from cerebral palsy and other disabilities, call the nationally-recognized attorneys at ABC Law Centers (Reiter & Walsh, P.C.). Our birth injury lawyers have decades of experience with cerebral palsy cases and will review your child’s case for negligence, answer your questions, and inform you of your legal options. The initial consultation is free and we never charge any fees unless we win your case. Email or call us at 866-933-3015.


  1. Wiggs L. (2001). Sleep problems in children with developmental disorders. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 94(4), 177–179.
  2. American Sleep Apnea Association. Children and Sleep Apnea.
  3. “Children Sleep and Snoring.” Sleep Foundation, 28 July 2020,
  4. “American Academy of Pediatrics Publishes Clinical Guideline on Sleep Apnea in Children.” American Academy of Sleep Medicine – Association for Sleep Clinicians and Researchers, 31 Aug. 2012,

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