Why Down Syndrome Babies Struggle to Sleep and How to Help Them

Babies with Down Syndrome: Sleeping Difficulties and Solutions for Better Sleep

Every new parent faces challenges when raising a newborn. The most love a person can ever know is also accompanied with around the clock care for the newest addition to the world. The first few months leave most parents exhausted and also wondering if they'll ever sleep again. What parents sometimes take for granted, however, is that this is all par for the course. Though these difficulties are absolutely valid, parents of babies born with Down Syndrome have a greater set of challenges. And sleep problems are more common in these special needs babies.

As the most common genetic disorder, occurring in about 1 in 700 births in the U.S., it's important to understand why babies born with Down syndrome have more difficulty when it comes to sleeping. Even more important is knowing how to help these little ones get the quality sleep they need to be healthy and thrive. And helping them, in turn, helps their parents get the sleep they need to give the best care possible.


Why Babies with Down Syndrome Have a Harder Time Sleeping

The cause for sleep difficulties in babies born with Down syndrome can be attributed to various factors. Parents experiencing these issues should always first consult their child's pediatrician. But the most common causes are either breathing-related or behavioral.

Breathing-related: The physical abnormalities associated with Down syndrome are a large part of why babies born with Down syndrome are likely to have more difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep. Obstructive sleep apnea (describe in-depth below) can be caused by the following physical features.

  • narrow upper airways,
  • larger tongues, and
  • low muscle tone.

This makes frequent wakings more common and deep sleep harder for them to come by. If this sleep disorder is suspected, parents should contact their child's doctor. 



Behavioral: The behavioral issues that can accompany babies born with Down syndrome are another factor. Often they are the same types of behaviors you'd see in any infant. But due to developmental delays, these behaviors may last longer in babies born with Down syndrome. As is recommended with all babies, establishing a relaxing, consistent bedtime routine is key in helping your little one fall asleep. Though it can be more challenging to get this established with a baby born with Down syndrome, it absolutely can be done!

Common Sleep Difficulties in Babies Born with Down Syndrome

The difficulties laid out here don't look that different from common sleep problems in typically developing children. However, these challenges are often resolved in the first few months with non-disordered children, whereas lingering sleep difficulties are much more prevalent in babies born with Down syndrome.

Some of the most common sleep difficulties include: 

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea - This is one of the challenges faced by babies born with Down syndrome that's mostly unique to their genetic disorder. Large tongues and narrow airways make it difficult to breathe normally during sleep. According to the National Institue of Health, about 31% of infants experience this. Parents who believe this is why their baby is having trouble sleeping need to consult their pediatrician to manage the condition.
  • Frequent Night Wakings - All young infants are likely to wake often due to hunger, the Moro Reflex and a lack of established sleep patterns that come after around 4 months of age. But sleep apnea, found in many babies born with Down syndrome, make frequent night wakings even more common.
  • More Light Sleep, Less REM sleep - When babies haven't learned to fall asleep on their own and have frequent night wakings, they will ultimately have less deep sleep which is important for both physical and cognitive growth.
  • Difficulty settling to sleep - Many parents report having a hard time getting their little ones to fall asleep and settle, not just parents of babies born with Down syndrome. It's important to remember that routine and consistency is key for helping a baby to learn to fall asleep on their own as well as put themselves back to sleep in the middle of the night.

Quality sleep is necessary for all babies...and for parents, too! Whether a baby born with Down syndrome is having difficulty sleeping due to a physical or behavioral issue, it's important to determine the underlying cause. That way, it can be corrected so that everyone starts getting a lot more sleep!

Babies born with Down syndrome can learn to overcome their sleep struggles just as any baby can. It just may take a little extra time and patience.


Tips for Helping Babies Born with Down Syndrome Sleep Better

The recommendations for helping a baby born with Down syndrome sleep better aren't really much different from helping any baby learn to sleep. The first step will be determining with a pediatrician whether sleep disturbances are being caused by sleep apnea. From there, if lack of sleep is still of concern, it's time to teach your little one how to fall asleep and stay asleep.

This is what parents of babies born with Down syndrome can do to help their baby sleep:

  • Prep your baby for bed the same way every night. This can include a bath, storytime, singing, and snuggling. When it's time for your baby to sleep, swaddle your baby or put them in a weighted sleep sack. Dim the lights and rock them until they are drowsy.
  • Create a calming sleep environment. Utilizing blackout curtains and white noise are practices that will let your baby know that it's time to sleep. If your baby wakes, these elements will signal to your baby that it is still sleeping time.
  • Put your baby down awake. This ensures that your baby will learn to fall asleep on their own. This is a difficult stage for many babies, with or without Down syndrome. As a parent this can be a tiring process, but it's the number one thing you can do to help your baby start getting the sleep they need. Once they can do this, they'll also be able to put themselves back to sleep if they wake in the middle of the night.
  • Avoid co-sleeping with your child. As tempting as it is to take your baby into your bed with you, it will only prolong their sleep issues.
  • Make sure your baby is getting plenty of activity in their waking hours. This will ensure they are ready for sleep when it is time.
  • Stay consistent! The more established the bedtime routine is, the quicker your baby with Down syndrome will learn that the expected outcome is sleep.

We also offer some extra great tips that work well for all babies in our article "Getting Your Baby to Sleep in a Crib."

Helping babies learn to sleep, including little ones with Down syndrome, is imperative for their cognitive and physical growth. Additionally, when babies sleep better, so do their parents. This makes for happier wake times where everyone is enjoying life and thriving. 




To follow baby Brooke's Down syndrome journey follow his mom Maddy Charlson: https://www.instagram.com/maddycharlson/

Dream Weighted Sleep Swaddle, 0-6 months