Sleep And Disabilities: Everything You Should Know

Medically reviewed by
 Dr. Nilong Vyas, MD, MPH: Expert Pediatrician and Sleep Consultant

Dr. Nilong Vyas, MD, MPH: Expert Pediatrician and Sleep Consultant

Dr. Nilong Vyas is a board-certified pediatrician with over eight years of experience in her field. She has dedicated her career to helping children and their parents achieve healthier sleep…

Last Updated On January 29th, 2024
Sleep And Disabilities: Everything You Should Know

Key Takeaways

  • Disability’s Impact on Sleep: Individuals with disabilities, both physical and intellectual, are more susceptible to sleep-related issues, such as insomnia, excessive daytime drowsiness, and sleep disorders, compared to those without disabilities.
  • Caregiving’s Impact on Sleep: Caregivers of disabled individuals often experience sleep disturbances and exhaustion, leading to burnout and impacting their overall well-being. Taking regular breaks and seeking support from family and friends can significantly help alleviate caregiver burnout.
  • Conditions that Affect Sleep: Various specific conditions, such as autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy, are associated with sleep-related challenges, including difficulty falling asleep, frequent nighttime waking, and disruptive sleep patterns. Understanding and addressing these specific challenges are essential for managing sleep difficulties in individuals with disabilities.

Physical or intellectual disability likely impacts sleep. However, every individual and situation is different. Therefore it’s hard to forecast how a condition may affect sleep. People with impairments are generally more prone to sleep issues than others.

This article covers studies on intellectual, physical, and child sleep disabilities. It will also examine the relationship between autism, sleep disorders, and caregiver sleep concerns. Finally, we’ll discuss disability-related sleep techniques.

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Sleep and Adult Disabilities

40% of disabled individuals experience long-term sleep problems, according to the RRTC. Insomnia, excessive daytime drowsiness, and narcolepsy are common (falling asleep suddenly during the day). Adults with impairments don’t sleep enough, according to research.

2014 BRFSS (Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System) data evaluated the sleep habits of Oregon individuals with and without impairments. According to the Oregon Office on Disability and Health, 44.8% of Oregon individuals with disabilities sleep fewer than 6 hours each night, compared to 27.1% of Oregonians without a handicap. Only 47.8% of Oregonians with disabilities slept the recommended 7 to 9 hours each night, compared to 70.7% without a handicap. The report found that disabled people may not receive adequate sleep.

The same is true for adults with intellectual disabilities, too. Many individuals with Down syndrome suffer from sleep apnea or sleep difficulties, according to a 2021 study Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

REM sleep is especially something individuals with Down syndrome can struggle to get enough of, so caregivers will want to do what they can to help someone with Down syndrome sleep better.

Sleep-Deprived Caregivers

According to the Child Mind Institute, parents and caregivers of disabled children may also feel worried, despair, sleeplessness, and exhaustion while tending to people with disabilities and their sleep habits. Burnout symptoms include weariness, despair, and sleeplessness.

Others have examined the sleeping habits of parents whose children need medical devices such as feeding tubes, insulin pumps, oxygen masks, and ventilators. These caregivers had less sleep than those children without impairments, and researchers found they were “at risk of acute and chronic sleep deprivation, psychological distress, and impaired daytime function.”

41% of carers report the care recipient wakes them up at night, according to the Family Caregiving Alliance.

The Alliance suggests caregivers get respite when possible. Family and friends can help, or you might hire in-home help or ask social workers about local respite possibilities.

Don’t wait until you’re exhausted and overwhelmed. Regular respite is a huge help, even as little as 15 minutes at a time. Short breaks when you can also help.

Sleep Problems and Child Disabilities

In a 2006 study published in Physical & Occupational Therapy In Pediatrics, researchers evaluated the sleep habits of 178 children with physical impairments such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and muscular dystrophy and 69 without. The research surveyed children’s caretakers.

According to research, physically disabled youngsters took 37 minutes longer to fall asleep on weeknights. Disabled children are likelier to wake up often at night or require help changing positions.

Many of the youngsters in the study utilized adaptive equipment to “promote musculoskeletal alignment,” Many caregivers stated it disturbed their sleep or made them uncomfortable at night. The researchers found that many caregivers were concerned about their child’s safety and comfort when sleeping and the impact of poor sleep patterns on their child’s health and daytime activities. The study’s authors urged doctors to notice sleep difficulties in disabled children and work with families to find solutions.

Another research study focused on children with intellectual disabilities (ID) such as autism, Down syndrome, or Prader–Willi syndrome. Researchers observed that sleep issues were four times more common in children with impairments than those without.

Intellectually disabled children often have trouble falling asleep, co-sleeping with a parent or caregiver, and waking up early.

The study’s parents were concerned about their children’s sleep troubles since they affected the child and potentially disturbed other family members’ sleep.

Sleep and Autism in Children

1 in 59 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental impairment that causes social, communication, and behavioral problems.

Half of autistic children have difficulties sleeping, according to the University of Utah Health website, although the relationship between autism and sleep is unclear.

One explanation implies a failure in the body’s circadian rhythm, or 24-hour biological clock, and the brain’s inability to control melatonin synthesis. ASD children and teens may have problems falling asleep and waking up frequently at night.

The following can help ASD youngsters rest better and avoid bad sleep habits:

  • Following the same bedtime routine every night
  • Using a visual timetable so the youngster can follow the nighttime ritual
  • Daily exercise and exposure to sunshine
  • Cool, dark, and quiet bedrooms promote restful sleep

See also our guide to ways to address sleep problems in children with autism.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep incorporates numerous regions of the brain. Depending on a person’s handicap and sleep patterns, aging may lead to increased sleep problems and medical disorders.

Here are some typical symptoms in disabled individuals with sleep problems.

  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • CAD
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Depression

Studies have found that sleeping five hours or fewer Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source each night raised the death risk by 15%.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source causes irregular breathing while sleeping. Sleep apnea has three types:

  • OSA or Obstructive Sleep Apnea Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source is caused by throat muscles relaxing and obstructing the airway.
  • Central sleep apnea Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source occurs when your brain fails to provide proper signals to your breathing muscles.
  • Complex sleep apnea Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source occurs when you have both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

See also Obstructive and Central Sleep Apnea: What’s the Difference?

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless Legs Syndrome Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source (RLS) produces “unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them.”

As it’s a movement disorder, people often find relief when they move their legs by stretching, jiggling, pacing, or walking. RLS is associated with periodic limb movement during sleep, which causes the legs to twitch and kick while sleeping. That said, Periodic Limb Movement Disorder is a separate condition.

Sensations may be hard to describe for some patients to describe, though they may speak of throbbing aches and pulling, crawling, or itching feelings. They may feel mildly irritating or the sensations may be quite painful.

RSL symptoms worsen at the end of the day and overnight. Typically symptoms are most severe when a person is at rest, whether that’s sitting stationary for a while in a car or at a desk or lying in bed at night.


Hypersomnia Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source is excessive sleep or daytime tiredness. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, if you suffer from symptoms for three weeks or longer, you may have hypersomnia.

Some characteristics of hypersomnia include getting 10 hours of sleep or more and daytime sleepiness despite a whole night’s rest.

Disability Sleep Tips

Improving sleep with a handicap varies depending on your health and sleep issues. Consult your doctor often.

Try these strategies if you have an intellectual or physical impairment with sleep disorder symptoms like sleep apnea or RLS:

Speak to Your Doctor

Doctors can listen to your concerns and help diagnose your illness or medical disorder. If necessary, they recommend medical treatments that can improve quality of life.

For example, sleep apnea is sometimes treated with surgery or medication. However, surgery for sleep apnea is typically a doctor’s last resort after previous measures have failed.

Doctors can also help you plan out your recovery after more intensive surgeries. If you expect to be laid up for a few weeks or months, you might want to look at mattresses for bed sores, but a few days of bed rest are easier to manage.

Improve Sleep Hygiene

Intellectual or physically disabled persons who struggle to sleep might benefit from proper sleep hygiene. Sleep problems can be treated with simple lifestyle changes like regular exercise, quitting coffee, and a tight sleep/wake schedule.

Some sleep hygiene tips include:

  • Consistent bedtime and waketime, even on weekends
  • Dark, calm, and chilly. Blackout shades, curtains, or an eye mask can block light. If the street or home noise is an issue, try a fan, earplugs, or a white noise machine.
  • Get a suitable mattress. For example, there are mattresses for back pain and other common problems. Get a comfy, supportive, high-quality mattress.
  • Before bed, avoid electronics. The blue light from electronic displays can interfere with sleep; so turn them off at least an hour before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening if feasible.


The Penn Sleep Center of Penn Medicine recommends CBT-I for insomnia. According to the website, behavioral therapies are equally effective as medicine and generate lasting improvements once treatment is stopped.

Alternative Treatments

Some people think natural medicines and supplements help them fall and stay asleep. Do the research and visit a doctor before you make any lifestyle changes to discover what works for you.

Some over-the-counter supplements include melatonin and magnesium:

  • Melatonin: Melatonin supplements Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source may aid with delayed sleep phase, insomnia, and jet lag. Melatonin is safe for short-term usage, but consult your doctor if you take other drugs.
  • Magnesium: The data on magnesium supplements and sleep is weak, although anecdotal evidence suggests they assist. Again, ask your doctor whether magnesium Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source will interact with other drugs as there are many varieties of Magnesium supplementation.

The May Clinic says Verified Source Mayo Clinic Ranked #1 hospital by U.S. News & World Report and one of the most trusted medical institutions in the world. The staff is committed to integrated patient care, education, and research. View source sleeping medications might help you fall asleep or remain asleep. Different sleeping pills have different risks and benefits.

However, sleeping drugs are a last resort for insomnia, experts say. Plus, some sleeping drugs can cause dependence, headaches, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, drowsiness, sleepwalking, and daytime performance or memory issues.

Sleep Tips for Caregivers

Some caregivers recognize they are sleep deprived, while others don’t. It’s easy to forget yourself when caring for a loved one. For example, 92% of dementia carers slept poorly, woke up frequently, and slept less than six hours overnight, according to a 2018 study.

Sleep deprivation affects everyone, even caretakers. Not getting enough sleep can cause problems focusing, mood changes, extreme weariness, diminished physical or athletic performance, impaired cognitive ability, and an increased risk of significant health disorders.

Dr. Nilong Vyas of Sleepless in NOLA Sleep Consulting says, “caring for another person can be quite taxing mentally and physically, especially for someone with a disability. Ensuring adequate sleep for the caregiver is essential in caring for the disabled. If they cannot prioritize sleep for themselves, it will be difficult to provide optimal care for their family member.

How can caregivers ensure they sleep well at night to better handle their responsibilities, along with ensuring their charge’s sleep health? Every caregiver’s condition is different and they should see their doctor regarding sleep deprivation. However, we have some general tips that may help you if you’re experiencing sleep troubles.

Track Sleep

A sleep diary Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source or specialized sleep tracking technology can help carers measure how much sleep they receive and how often they wake up. This information might help you evaluate if you’re struggling with sleep disruptions or sleep deprivation. However, it’s important to not obsess over getting the perfect night’s sleep, as this can cause anxiety when it’s time for bed.

Improve Sleep Hygiene

Healthy sleep hygiene can help disabled persons and carers sleep. Consistent bed and waking hours, a relaxing bedtime ritual, avoiding electronics in bed, and sleeping in a cold, dark, quiet, and comfortable setting might improve sleep quality.

Nap Midday

If you can’t sleep more at night, try daytime naps. Naps might help you catch some extra rest and feel rejuvenated. However, limit daytime naps to 30 minutes and avoid napping too late in the day.

See also:

Exercise Often

Exercise improves sleep, even if it’s a mild form of movement such as taking a 20 to 30-minute walk every day. Exercising also helps carers ease the stress, anxiety, and sadness they may be feeling.

Avoid Stimulants/Depressants

Daytime and early evening self-care is important when it comes to getting a good night’s rest, tempting though it may be to make a pot of coffee in the early evening. We suggest sipping caffeine-free tea and warm milk if you want to unwind before bed.

Get Assistance

It’s appropriate to ask for help with caregiving. If financially possible, consider overnight medical treatment so you can sleep. Ask a friend or family member for aid.


Experts aren’t sure why persons with impairments are more prone to have sleep issues, but data indicates it. This includes physical and intellectual problems such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and muscular dystrophy. Autism and sleep problems are linked, but we need more studies to understand why and how to fix them.

The best technique to treat disability-related sleep difficulties depends on the condition.

If you experience symptoms of sleep problems, go to your doctor. Suppose you have difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, waking up several times at night, or getting up too early. In that case, lifestyle adjustments and good sleep hygiene may help.

About the author

Eric Ridenour is a health and wellness writer with a strong focus on sleep and nutrition. With a background in health science and psychology, Eric has a deep understanding of the connection between sleep and overall well-being. His expertise has been sought by various businesses and individuals, and his work has been featured in reputable publications such as Thrive Global, Drug Report, and Authority Magazine. Eric's commitment to promoting better sleep and comprehensive wellness is evident in his writing and consultations. He is a published author working on his second book.

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