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Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition that primarily affects muscles and movement. There are many ways in which this manifests, from spastic movements to hearing loss to an inability to walk. Among the many issues that people with cerebral palsy face, one is trouble sleeping. Children especially struggle to sleep well or enough because of cerebral palsy.
The usual culprits for trouble sleeping in children with cerebral palsy are things like seizures, muscle spasms, pain, difficulty breathing, or gastrointestinal upset. Studies show that as many as half of all children diagnosed with cerebral palsy suffer from a sleep disorder.
As a parent, it is tough to watch a child suffer from the added discomfort of being unable to sleep. There are things that can be done for a child with cerebral palsy to help make sleep easier and more restful.
Cerebral Palsy and Sleep Disorders
There are many ways in which cerebral palsy can prevent a child from sleeping. In many cases, the issue is severe enough that the child’s primary care provider can actually diagnose a sleeping disorder. Many children with cerebral palsy suffer from some sort of sleeping disorder. 
For example, sleep apnea is a condition characterized by stopping and starting breathing throughout the night while asleep.  It can be a dangerous condition and is often accompanied by snoring.
Even if a child with cerebral palsy does not have sleep apnea, his or her sleep can be disrupted by a number of factors. Muscle spasms, which are extremely common in cerebral palsy, are disruptive and make falling asleep challenging.
A child with cerebral palsy that cannot move easily may get uncomfortable during the night but be unable to shift position. Cerebral palsy can also cause chronic pain, which interferes with sleep.
Controlling Cerebral Palsy to Sleep Well
The number one, most important thing that parents can do to help their child sleep better is to treat and manage the symptoms of cerebral palsy. A child that is not getting proper treatment is likely to be more uncomfortable and less able to sleep. For example, if your child cannot fall asleep at night because of muscle spasms, the solution may be as simple as a muscle relaxant before bed.
Of course, treating and managing cerebral palsy is far from straightforward. Even with the best care, a child may still struggle to sleep at night. Medications may cause side effects or fail to work well enough.
Therapies may help a little bit, but not enough to make a full night’s sleep easy. In addition to managing cerebral palsy symptoms, there are several other things parents can do to help their children sleep through the night.
Start with a Sleep Diary
A great place to start is by using a sleep diary to better pinpoint the problems causing your child to have poor sleep patterns.
Your child may not be able to tell you exactly what is wrong. Keep a record for a couple of weeks of everything related to your child’s sleep: frequency and timing of naps, times he or she goes to bed, how long it takes to fall asleep, anything he or she ate before bed, how you go through the process of getting ready for bed, and when and which medications your child takes.
Record anything you think is relevant and you may start to see a pattern. For instance, you may begin to realize that your bedtime routine is stressful or that your child eats a snack before bed that has too much sugar. Even if you can’t find the problem in your notes, a sleep specialist may be able to and can use the information to help your child.
Get Exercise Every Day
Exercise is a great way for anyone to sleep better and more readily. Make sure your child gets adequate physical activity every day, even if his or her movements are restricted because of cerebral palsy.
Any kind of activity you can add to the child’s day will help. It could even include therapy that helps treat cerebral palsy, such as physical therapy, aqua therapy, targeted stretching, going for a walk, or using the wheelchair more throughout the day.
Encourage a Healthy Diet
Exercise will relax your child, but eating well will help them feel better too. Children with cerebral palsy are especially at risk of having poor nutrition because many have difficulty eating and swallowing.
If you are not sure if your child is getting the right nutrition, work with a dietician or nutritionist to help you develop a meal plan that takes your child’s conditions into account. If eating is difficult for your child because of problems with swallowing, have multiple smaller meals every day instead of three larger meals. This makes it easier for your child.
Create a Calming Bedtime Routine
Having a routine before going to sleep is a great strategy for someone of any age, regardless of their medical conditions. A routine gets you into the mood for sleep and over time your mind and body adjusts and starts to get sleepy as you go through this routine. For a child struggling to sleep because of cerebral palsy, this is especially important.
As part of the routine, restrict your child’s use of anything stimulating for a couple of hours before bed. This includes video games and other electronic devices. Replace these with reading a book together. Other elements of a relaxing bedtime routine may include a hot bath, slow stretching exercises, or time spent together just quietly talking.
Make the Bed Comfortable
A child with cerebral palsy has more trouble than most children getting comfortable in any setting, including a bed. If your child is seriously disabled, speak with your primary care provider or physical therapist to find out what body position is most comfortable.
Use pillows and comfortable bedding to help reinforce the position and make the bed more comfortable. Keep the temperature in the bedroom cool and turn off all lights before bed.
Sleeping well is important for your child’s health, but it may be a struggle. There are many steps you can take to help your child sleep better, but if these measures still don’t work, speak to your primary care provider. There may be another underlying medical problem that is preventing your child from sleeping.
- Sleep disorders in children with cerebral palsy and its correlation with sleep disturbance in primary caregivers and other associated factors. (2014, October). PubMed Central (PMC)
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4251031/
- Sleep apnea - Symptoms and causes. (2018, July 25). Mayo Clinic.
Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20377631