Sleep Deprivation and Mothering a Child with Special Needs

Sleep deprivation and mothering a child with special needs – I am writing this to remind myself, and maybe you, that sleep deprivation has an impact on our mothering. There is no way around it.

I celebrated my 44th birthday last summer.

My family blessed me with exactly the right gift – two nights away to get caught up on sleep. 

It was literally the only gift I really wanted.

sleep deprivation and mothering a child with special needs

After several years of one sleep battle after another (really 15 years, but who’s counting?), it’s just a given around here.

I am sleep deprived.

Depending on how each of my children are sleeping, I average between 3-5 hours of uninterrupted sleep (and about 1-2 additional hours of interrupted, up and down, trying to find things to help them while still half asleep, sleep) a night.  Like, always.

Some nights it’s less. On very rare occasions, it’s more.

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Sleep Deprivation and Mothering a Child with Special Needs

I can always take a nap. Any where. Any time. No problem at all. Even on my most anxious days, I quickly fall asleep at night. Sitting in therapists’ waiting rooms, I find myself nodding off every single time.

I can fall asleep sitting up, without blankets or a pillow, on the couch, in my child’s bed, and in the car with the seat back.

I am pretty sure  I could curl up on one of the couches in Costco on a busy Saturday afternoon, and sleep like a baby.

I am chronically sleep deprived, y’all. For reals.

Most of the time, it just is what it is. I don’t even really notice it much anymore. I take naps when I can. I plan to be useless for the last few hours past dinnertime each night. I just kind of go with it.

But getting away for those two nights reminded me just how much sleep matters.

It reminded me that most of the time, I am operating at less than maximum capacity.

After blissfully sleeping for as long as I wanted to, I came home to two children ready to meltdown (because mom gone for two days is certainly a change in routine). And meltdown they did. All night long.

You know what?

Because I had gotten a little rest, I was so much more capable.

I was patient. I was kind. I held firm boundaries. I was able to think of options to help them, and react when they didn’t.

It felt almost easy.

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I am writing this to remind myself, and maybe you, that sleep deprivation has an impact on our mothering. There is no way around it.

Sleep deprivation and mothering a child with special needs simply go hand and hand.

I want to remember this, the next time I have no grace for my lack of patience, or my inability to get up and clean the kitchen. I want to remember this when it is 2:00 AM and I am nodding off, instead of paying attention to the anxious, overwhelmed child in front of me. I want to remember this when I see another mom, with her hair done, her make-up on, and wearing an outfit that doesn’t involved an elastic waistband, when I barely remembered a bra.

I want to remember this when I haven’t grocery shopped, my fridge is bare, and the pantry looks like the Grinch came and pushed all the food up the chimney before his heart grew 3 sizes that day.

I want to remember it when I feel like I am failing.

I am sleep deprived.  Not a bad mom. Not a bad wife. Not a bad homemaker, blogger or friend.

I am simply a mom of kiddos with special needs, that require a lot of me at night.

And maybe, just maybe, I can give myself a break.

Sleep in. Take a nap, allowing the boys more screen time. Tell the therapist he might need to wake me up when he has completed my child’s appointment. Ask my husband to take over on Saturday mornings.

Admit that I need help.

Because sleep is a big deal.

Even when you are the mom.

Maybe especially when you are the mom.

Depression and Mothers Of Children With Special Needs


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  1. I love your blog! I relate to so much that you write! Being a mom to a special needs child is tough & sometimes lonely. Thanks for these thoughts. I really needed it today as I sit here exhausted. Thank you:)

  2. Paula Salvatore says:

    I have been reading many articles and studies lately that try to pinpoint exactly what sleep does for the human brain. While none of them have specific answers yet, they all agree on the utmost importance of sleep. These parents that go without a good nights sleep for years often have some drastic personality issues and changes. Shawna has touched on several in this article. Family and friends need this information. It is their duty as family and friends to help. Offer a half day every week or every other week and let them do whatever they want. They will inevitably choose sleep. My daughter has twin three year olds. You may think, oh no wonder she needs sleep. My grandson, one of the twins is autistic. My granddaughter, the other twin has her own issues due to realizing that her brother that she adores is somehow different. He goes to therapy 5 days a week since he was about 18-20 months old. It sure seems like nobody understands what is going on in this family but me sometimes.
    Don’t ever hesitate to ask for help if it means meeting a basic human need of sleep. You cannot behave as you need to when exhausted. And all parents need to be kind, loving, patient, and well rested!!

    1. So well said, Paula. Thank you for your kind and encouraging words – and for sharing your experience.

  3. Shawna, thank you, thank you, thank you! When I asked my partner what she wanted for her birthday a couple years ago, she said “sleep”. Our now four year old only began sleeping through the night when he was almost 3 1/2 and only then with the assistance of medication. We still do not know what we are dealing with or facing with him–we just know we are two very different people than we were before our son began sleeping. I do not believe we will ever make up for all the sleep we lost those years. Thank you for the post and for helping me know I am not the “only one”!

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