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Respite Care for Parents of Children with Special Needs: An Overview


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Parenting a child with special needs can be both rewarding and challenging. It requires extra time, effort, and dedication to provide the necessary care and support. One essential aspect of caring for children with special needs is respite care.

According to the Canadian Healthcare Association1:

Respite care is the term used to denote the act of leaving a loved one with special needs in the temporary care of another party. This provides caregivers with temporary relief from the physical and emotional demands involved in caring for their loved ones, and time to attend to other responsibilities.

Here, we will explore the concept of respite care in more detail, with a special focus on providing respite services for parents and caregivers of children with special needs.

Respite care in Canada

Multiple studies by government bodies and reputed organizations have found that, over the past years, a large number of Canadians have been providing care or help to family members or friends who have a long-term health condition or disability.

Caregivers providing care to their children had the highest unmet support needs at 50%, compared to 38% for those caring for their partners or spouses

A study conducted by Statistics Canada summarised in 2020 that2:

  • 25% of Canadians aged 15 and older provided care or help to someone with a long-term health condition, a physical or mental disability, or problems related to aging in 2018.
  • Of these caregivers, about 70% received support for their caregiving duties.
  • 45% of caregivers received help from a spouse or partner, 43% received help from their children, and 39% received help from extended family members.
  • 30% of caregivers who received support said there was another type of support they would have liked to receive in the past year, with financial support being the most common need (68%).
  • Caregivers providing care to their children had the highest unmet support needs at 50%, compared to 38% for those caring for their partners or spouses, and less than 20% for those providing care to grandparents, friends, neighbors, or co-workers.
  • Unmet caregiving support needs are associated with lower life satisfaction, more daily stress, and worse self-reported mental health.

What is respite care for children?

Respite care refers to short-term care provided to children with special needs, allowing their parents or caregivers to take a temporary break from their caregiving responsibilities.

It provides an opportunity for parents to rest, rejuvenate, and take care of their own physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

What does respite care entail?

Respite care comes in different forms, ranging from being able to get away from caregiving responsibilities for an hour or two, to taking longer intervals of time away from your caregiving role.

The primary goals of respite care are to give temporary relief to the caregivers, while helping them maintain or enhance the quality of life for family members who have disabilities or chronic conditions.

What are the different types of respite care?

In Canada, there are various types of respite care available. The main types are:

  1. In-home respite care: This type of respite care is provided in your own home, with the caregiver visiting you directly to provide care for a certain period of time. This allows your child to stay in their familiar environment while providing a break for you, the primary caregiver.
  2. Out-of-home respite care: Here, your child is given temporary respite care – for a few hours, or sometimes even overnight or for a weekend – at a physical location outside your home. This can be provided in a variety of settings, such as specialised respite care centers, group homes, residential facilities, or camps.
  3. Specialized respite care: This type of respite care is provided for children with specific medical or developmental needs that cannot be catered to at home. It is provided by specialized organizations that have trained professionals who specialize in caring for children with physical or developmental disabilities or disorders.
  4. Emergency respite care: This is where emergency care is provided for children when their primary caregiver is unable to provide care due to an unexpected event, such as an illness or injury.

The benefits of respite care

For caregivers, respite care can reduce stress and ultimately improve long-term functioning, which can strengthen families and bolster physical and mental wellbeing. For the care recipient, respite care ensures that various therapeutic and medical needs are being met, while also offering them opportunities to develop their social, recreational, and life skills.

This is especially important in the case of children with special needs, who need to be given a warm, nurturing environment in which their specific requirements are catered to and their skills and talents are given the opportunity to burgeon.

Some of the essential benefits of respite care are:

  • It supports parental well-being: Primarily, respite care provides primary caregivers a break from caregiving, reduces stress, and promotes overall well-being. For parents who have been the primary caregivers to their child or children, the constant stress can be debilitating. Taking a part-time break, whether it is for an evening, a whole day, or a weekend or even a longer duration, is a great way to relax, rejuvenate yourself, and will prove very beneficial for your physical and mental wellbeing.
  • It enhances parent-child relationships: Respite care allows parents to spend quality time with their family, improve their work-life balance, and, eventually, also leads to more positive parent-child relationships. This is because, while you can use the break from caregiving to focus on your personal responsibilities, respite centers also have numerous activities, therapy sessions and other events planned for children under their care. This allows your kids also to blossom and become better at assimilating into the wider society.
  • It supports siblings and other family members: Sometimes, caregiving duties fall to siblings and other family members, while primary caregivers are unavailable or need to take care of pressing matters. This could potentially cause a disruption to established routines or work schedules, resulting in increased tensions and worries. Respite care provides a solution that helps you avoid all that, giving everyone a break from their caregiving responsibilities and helping create a more supportive and cohesive family unit.
  • It enhances your child’s socialization and development: Respite care offers children with special needs an opportunity to interact with others, learn social skills, and have fun – which may not be possible in a home-care environment.
  • It prevents caregiver burnout: Caregiver burnout is a serious concern for parents who have to constantly provide support and attention to special needs children. One of the most effective ways to avoid this is to take a temporary break via respite care, which will in turn help you function better in the long run.
  • It promotes self-care and personal growth: Allowing their children to be temporarily taken care of by respite care centers encourages parents to prioritize their own self-care, pursue hobbies, and relax, leading to better personal growth and well-being.

How does respite care for children work?

Respite care programs are designed to provide a safe and structured environment for children with special needs. These programs are staffed by trained professionals who are experienced in providing care to children with special needs. They follow individualized care plans and provide a structured routine that promotes the child’s safety, well-being, and development.

When parents enroll their child in a respite care center, the staff will develop an individualized care plan that takes into account the child’s unique needs, abilities, and interests. This will guide the staff in providing the necessary care and support to the child.

Respite care programs typically offer a structured routine that includes a range of activities designed to promote the child’s well-being and development.

These activities may include:

  • educational and recreational activities,
  • physical therapy exercises,
  • socialization opportunities, and
  • other medical therapies or interventions as needed.

The respite care center staff will work closely with the child to help them engage in these activities and make progress toward their individual goals.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about respite care

  1. How do I know if I need respite care for my child in Canada?

If you are the primary caregiver for a child with special needs, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or stressed. You may also find that you have limited time and energy to take care of your own needs or those of other family members. If this sounds familiar, you may want to consider respite care for your child.

  1. What types of respite care are available?

Respite care can be provided in various settings, such as in-home care, community-based programs, or specialized facilities. In-home care involves a caregiver coming to your home to provide care for your child. Community-based programs are typically offered in group settings where children can engage in recreational activities and socialize with peers. Specialized facilities may include respite care centers or specialized camps that cater to children with special needs.

  1. How often should I use respite care?

The frequency of respite care depends on your child’s needs and your personal circumstances. It can range from occasional short breaks to more regular scheduled care periods. It’s important to assess your own needs as a caregiver and determine what works best for you and your child. Regular respite care periods can help prevent caregiver burnout and promote long-term caregiving sustainability.

  1. Is respite care covered by insurance or government programs?

Some respite care programs may be covered by insurance or government programs, depending on the specific policies and regulations of your region or country. It’s important to research and inquire about available financial assistance or funding options for respite care in your area. Some disability support organizations or advocacy groups may also offer financial assistance or scholarships for respite care.

  1. How do I choose the right respite care program for my child?

Choosing the right respite care program for your child involves considering various factors such as the type of care provided, qualifications of the caregivers, activities offered, safety measures in place, and the preferences and needs of your child. It’s important to do thorough research, visit the facilities or meet with the caregivers in person, and ask questions to ensure that the respite care program aligns with your child’s specific needs and your preferences as a parent.


Caring for a child with special needs can be challenging and overwhelming, and parents need support to maintain their own well-being and provide the best care for their child. Respite care is a crucial form of support that offers parents a much-needed break from caregiving responsibilities, reduces stress and anxiety, promotes self-care, and enhances overall well-being.

It provides a safe and structured environment for children with special needs and offers customized care to meet their individual requirements. Accessing respite care involves researching available programs, understanding the types of care, consulting with professionals, creating a care plan, planning for care periods, and maintaining communication with caregivers.

By taking advantage of respite care programs, parents can improve their own mental health and well-being, enhance their ability to care for their child, and achieve a better balance in their caregiving responsibilities. Respite care is an essential resource that parents of children with special needs should consider to ensure the best care for their child and themselves.


  1. Canadian Healthcare Association, Respite Care in Canada
  2. Statistics Canada, Support received by caregivers in Canada