Helping Children with Autism Get to Sleep

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Sleep is essential. It helps you stay healthy. It restores your body and keeps your immune system healthy. Your body needs sleep to grow. A lack of proper sleep can adversely affect your child’s health, behavior and learning. While everyone, especially children, goes through periods of time when they have difficulty sleeping, children with autism frequently have trouble sleeping. Some estimates say anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of children with autism have significant sleep problems. This can increase meltdowns, interfere with learning and make behavior more challenging. When your child doesn’t sleep right, it is stressful for him and the entire family.

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    The following are tips to help you help your child. Some you might already be doing or have tried. Some might be geared toward a different age group. Choose the ones that would work in your home and give each idea a chance to work, at least two weeks, before moving on to a different approach.

    Before making any changes, you might want to talk with your child’s doctor to make sure there aren’t any physical conditions which are contributing to the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Some medical conditions that interfere with sleep include sleep apnea and gastrointestinal problems. If bedwetting is waking your child up, you can address this with your child’s doctor as well. Before making changes to your child’s sleep schedule, address any medical issues.

    Keep track of your child’s sleep patterns. Keep a notebook by your bedside, on your child’s bedside table or somewhere else you can easily write in, at bedtime and during the night if your child wakes frequently. Write down what time he goes to bed, how long it takes him to fall asleep (you might need to check in several times to determine this), how often and what time he wakes up during the night and the reasons he wakes up (bad dream, bathroom, etc). This information might provide you with a pattern to help you address specific issues. You can also share this information with your child’s doctors and therapy team so you are all working together.

    Make sure your child’s bedroom is conducive to sleep. If a window lets in light  from a streetlight or early morning sunlight, look for heavy or light-blocking curtains. If you can easily hear noises from the downstairs, consider installing thick carpeting to block some of the noise.

    Consider your child’s sensory sensitivities. Your child might find his pajamas too constricting or uncomfortable. He might find the sheets and blankets itchy. His room might be too hot or too cold. Work with your child’s sensory needs to make sure his bedtime environment is calming and relaxing.

    Turn off the television and other electronics at least one hour before bedtime. The light from electronic devices can stimulate the brain, keeping your child awake. Find alternative activities for the hour before bedtime.

    Create a bedtime routine. If your child enjoys baths, have him take a warm bath, however, if your child find baths stimulating, try to get this done earlier in the evening. Read stories together and for older children set aside this time for them to read quietly by themselves. Give your child a massage. Play relaxing music. Stay away from stimulating activities and choose more quiet time activities to help your child wind down from the day (what is stimulating and what is calming can be different for each child). Create a visual or written schedule for “wind-down” time so your child knows what to expect and when it is time for bed. Following the routine each night will help your child feel calm.

  • Keep bedtime consistent. While life occasionally gets in the way, try to keep your bedtime routine consistent, including going to bed at the same time each night.

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    Talk to your child’s doctor about melatonin supplements. Some studies have shown that the sleep-wake cycles of children with autism can be off. Melatonin supplements have been found to help for some children. Talk to your doctor about whether this is a good option and if so, what dose would be appropriate.

    Discuss bright-light therapy with a sleep specialist. Exposing your child to bright lights in the morning might help regulate his sleep-wake cycle. A sleep specialist can determine if this is a good option and, if so, explain how to implement it.

    If, no matter what you do, your child still has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, ask your doctor for a referral to a sleep specialist who can work with you and your child to help him get a good night’s sleep.

Published On: November 06, 2014