Bedtime should be a peaceful time, but any parent can tell you that that’s not always the case, especially for children with autism. Researchers don’t know exactly why autism causes sleeping problems, but it is certainly pervasive.
Recent estimates claim that four out of five children with autism have one or more chronic sleep problems, including difficulty falling or staying asleep. If you’re the parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who just can’t sleep through the night, that means you’re probably not getting sufficient rest, either.
Childrens’ sleep issues tend to worsen behavioral problems such as agitation and aggressiveness, as well as interfere with their learning and cognition. If your child is having trouble falling or staying asleep, it’s best to deal with the situation as soon as possible. Keep reading for some helpful ideas for improving sleep in children with ASD.
A healthy sleep pattern doesn’t begin at bedtime. Your child’s habits and actions throughout the day contribute to how they sleep at night. Here’s what you can do to help your child get to sleep and stay asleep using daytime routines, keeping in mind that children with ASD tend to function better with set schedules, routines, and patterns.
- Wake your child up at the same time every day, including weekends – Children with autism appreciate consistency and predictability. Try your best to wake them up at the same time every day. If your child uses their own alarm clock, make sure it’s set to the correct time at night.
- Open their windows or turn on the lights as soon as or right after they wake – Turning on the lights will reinforce the circadian rhythms (sleep and wake cycles) that help us to wake naturally. Lights are also a cue that can help your child mentally prepare themselves for the day ahead.
- Eat meals at the same time every day – Breakfast not only provides fuel for your child to take on the day, but trains their brain to know when it’s time to be awake and alert. Try your best to feed your child breakfast at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- It’s great if your child is active at school and loves to run and play, but if they’re not so active with others, make sure your child has at least 30 minutes of outdoor or indoor exercise every day. It doesn’t have to be strenuous; walking around the neighborhood, stretching, or swimming can make it easier for your child to fall asleep at night. Avoid letting your child exercise too close to bedtime, though; it might be harder for them to fall asleep if their body is still in active mode.
- You should avoid letting your child nap if they are five years or older. Sleeping in the daytime can confuse your child’s brain, and they’ll probably have difficulty going or staying asleep. As a rule of thumb, make sure the nap ends before 3 p.m.
- Avoid giving your child or letting them choose a caffeinated beverage or food item too close to bedtime. Caffeine is known to disrupt sleep, and the chemical can be found in coffee, tea, soda, and chocolate.
Caffeine can stay in our bodies for up to 12 hours. If your child consumes a caffeinated beverage at 3 p.m., the chemical could stay in their body until 3 a.m., leading to a long, restless night and a miserable following day.
In the evening, try to just give your child water, lightly sweetened juice, or decaffeinated tea. No soda, and definitely no coffee.
You should also get your child to do chores or homework in their least-favorite subject earlier in the evening, maybe around 5 or 6 p.m. If your child despises math and that’s the last thing they do in the day, it’s no wonder they might go to bed feeling anxious and stressed.
Avoid letting your child watch TV, play video games, or play on the computer less than an hour before bed. Instead, they can read, work on a puzzle, play an instrument, or engage in another electronics-free activity.
And finally, the part we’ve been waiting for. Bedtime! Following these tips will help your child feel calm, comfortable, and ready for bed. Remember that the routine will likely take time to sink in, but you should try the best you can to keep it consistent.
Your child’s bedtime routine should be predictable and relatively short. An ideal length of time is 20-30 minutes. This routine should include relaxing activities, like reading or listening to calming music.
Your child’s bedroom should be dark, quiet, and cool. Many children with ASD also have certain sensitivities to light and sound, so avoid putting distracting lights or lamps in the room. You can turn on a white noise machine if your child’s bedroom overlooks the road or another noisy area.
More Ideas for Autism and Sleep Problems
Just because sleep issues are common in children with autism doesn’t mean they don’t cause all kinds of health problems. Quality sleep is essential to a child’s well being, and there are plenty of things you can do to encourage a peaceful night’s rest.
Don’t rely on this blog alone – if your child has an autism diagnosis, seek treatment that can help them for the rest of their lives. For more information on autism, sleep problems, and treatment, call Therapeutic Pathways at (209) 422-3280.