How To Help An Autistic Child Sleep
It is common for young children to struggle with falling asleep and staying asleep. That being said, some children, such as autistic children, are more prone to experiencing these kinds of problems than others. In this guide, we will go through different factors which may affect an autistic childs sleep, what you can do as a parent or guardian to help, and what products may help support their sleep routine.
Get Enough Physical Activity During The Day
Its a good idea to encourage your child to be more active during the day for example, even a family walk before dinner can make a difference. And its great if your child can be active outside, because plenty of natural light during the day also helps with sleep.
Australian guidelines recommend that:
- preschoolers should be physically active for at least three hours a day, including at least an hour of energetic play, like running and jumping
- school-age children should be physically active for several hours a day, including at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Teach Your Child To Sleep Alone
Many parents of children with autism fall into the habit of lying down with their kids to get them to sleep. While this can be a precious time to connect with your child, it reinforces their perceived need to have you near them in order to sleep. That means you are indispensable at bedtime as well as when your child awakens in the middle of the night. And thats not good for either of you.
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Encourage Daytime Behaviors And Activities That Promote Sleep
During the day, its important to consider the behaviors and activities that may affect your childs ability to sleep at night. For example, exercising during the day may help your child fall asleep more easily at night and experience deeper sleep. Exercise should be scheduled early in the day. The same is true in regard to autism nap time. Keep nap times on a regular schedule and do not allow your child to sleep too late in the day.
At Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, we are here for you and your child. Being Utahs leading autism learning center, we offer a range of autism programs for children of all ages. Just as bedtime routines and schedules are critical for your childs well-being, their daytime schedule is equally vital especially in terms of social and academic skills. Learn more about the programs we offer in order to help your child reach their full potential today!
Talk To Your Doctor About Medication Options
Get a group of sleep-deprived parents of autistic children together and it won’t take long for someone to mention melatonin. This supplement has been around for years â you can buy it in supermarkets in the United States â but is it safe?
Melatonin works together with our body’s circadian rhythm to tell us it’s time to sleep.
Professor Blunden says some children with autism have a dysfunctional melatonin system, and there is now evidence that giving these children melatonin helps them go to sleep and stay asleep longer.
“I was reticent at the beginning, maybe 10 years ago, when melatonin was being used avidly without sufficient evidence,” she says.
“There isn’t long, long-term evidence â¦ and we do know that melatonin is a powerful hormone. Nonetheless, at the moment it is enormously helpful to some parents to be able to survive children who don’t get good sleep.
“If don’t get good sleep they can’t function and be patient and loving the way they want to be.”
Associate Professor Amanda Richdale from the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre says you should make the decision about melatonin, or other medication, with a doctor.
“There is the possibility of using some sort of short-term medication â¦ so sleep improves temporarily, at least while you put those new routines and things in place, and then look at weaning off the medication,” she says.
Dr Richdale says sometimes it’s about making sure the environment is safe for the child.
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Be Your Childs Advocate
Parents of a special needs children many times need to take on the role of not only advocate but also an educator. This dual role can be a challenge initially but will smooth your road ahead when it comes to success at daycare. Youll have to educate your childs caregivers on the best way to care for your child.
Help daycare workers to understand how to care for your child. Take time before your child starts daycare to educate the people who will work with your child even if this means asking for an in-depth meeting. Education of your childs caregivers will help make your childs day at daycare a successful one.
Introduce your child to their new caregivers early on. Establish solid communication strategies between your child and the daycare provider. If that includes outside tools such as laminated pictures for your child to use to communicate their needs or daycare workers becoming familiar with basic sign language, be sure to do an in-depth meeting.
Communication is everything! If your child does not realize that it is nap time because the daycare workers do not know how to tell her it is time to go lie down on her cot, this will immediately be a roadblock to a successful day. Additionally, having comfort items for your child to cuddle with during nap time will likely help as well. Establish the groundwork ahead of time.
Travelingand Sleeping While On Vacation With Your Asd Child
Traveling can be very stressful and anxiety-inducing for a child on the Spectrum, especially if your child has challenges with communication. If they already have an idea of what lies ahead of them, knowing the plan greatly reduces their anxiety and stress.
One way to help children to understand what they will do while they are traveling and on vacation is through social stories. This is a step by step story that shows a child what it is like to do an activity. Plan to start reading about a week ahead of time. Talk to your child about your vacation. Show them pictures of where youll stay such as a hotel or a cabin.
This will relieve a lot of anxiety for your child about being in an unfamiliar place. Be sure to include a demonstration of where and how you will be going to bed. Make sure your story includes going to bed in your hotel room, cabin or other accommodation and how its going to be different from going to bed at home. Lots of pictures are helpful. If you dont want to make your own story, there are fill-in-the-blank stories such as these that are ready-made, customizable, and quick to download.
Some children on the Autism Spectrum struggle with the concept of danger. They can elope or run away. In an unfamiliar environment, such as on vacation, this can be a dangerous situation. However, there is a lot of support available for both children and parents.
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Are There Sleep Medications For Children
Yes, there are prescription medications. However, most parents opt for a more natural route. The drugs some parents try include epilepsy drugs, sedatives, antidepressants, and alpha agonists, which affect the adrenal glands.
We cant provide any official medical advice, and we do urge you to speak with a trusted pediatrician before placing an autistic child on medication.
Where Luke Is Now
Just for absolute transparency, I want to be clear about where we are now with my son. He sleeps through the night regularly. If we go on vacation and sleep somewhere else without all of the above criteria, he usually wakes up in the middle of the night. So we definitely still have room for improvement. But it is much better than where it used to be.
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Melatonin For Autism Sleep Issues
Some doctors and parents are combining behavioral approaches to sleep issues with over-the-counter melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the pineal gland during the sleep cycle and it has been used as a supplement to treat sleep disturbances in kids with ADHD and autism.
A study in the 2008 Journal of Child Neurologyresearched the effects of melatonin in the treatment of insomnia in children with autism and found that 60% of parents reported improved sleep. The 2006 Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders reports that long-term melatonin treatment was effective overall and no safety concerns were found for continuing melatonin treatment.
As with all over-the-counter medications, you want to ensure the correct dosage for your child. Believe it or not, melatonin is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration so the dosages vary by manufacturers and medication form .
Because some children with autism are also on psychotropic medications, finding the right dose of melatonin can be a tricky task so its best to work with your pediatrician to consider all of the variables that are specific to your child.
According to Dr. Craig Canapari, director of Yale Pediatric Sleep Center, In general, I would start at a low dose and increase slowly. Recognize that melatonin, unlike other medications, is a hormone and that lower doses are sometimes more effective than higher ones, especially if the benefit of it reduces with time.
Gluten Casein And Other Reactive Foods
Gluten is found in barley, wheat, and rye casein is found in milk and some dairy products. If gluten and/or casein causes your child to experience a reaction, such as a change in behavior or digestive upset, there may be a chance that these foods are impacting your childs sleep.
A study published in BioMed Research International found that the immune systems of a subgroup of children with ASD are triggered by gluten and casein. An immune reaction will trigger the release of chemicals that both promote inflammation and disrupt sleep. This situation is not limited to just gluten and casein. Any food can trigger the immune system however, the more common culprits include soy, corn, and egg.
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Howsleep Deprivation Affects Autistic Children
Insufficientsleep is tough on anyone. Sleep deprivation can cause irritability, difficulty concentrating, and flat-out fatigue. For autistic children, these issues can be amplified.
Autistic children without enough sleep may feel more distressed or anxious. They may struggle more with behavior at school, home, and social situations. With sleep deprivation, autistic children who may already be struggling with behavior may exhibit more aggression and hyperactivity.
Continued sleep difficulty may indicate a sleep disorder such as insomnia, which is common in autistic children. Other common sleep disorders for autistic children include parasomnias such as nightmares, night terrors, and bedwetting.
A Special Autism Bed Tent
Companies are now making enclosed beds, or bed tents, which provide a contained, cozy, safe space for sleep.
There are many styles separate free standing units, pop-up types that rest on top of the mattress and after-market canopies that strap to the bed frame itself. Some are inflatable, portable and easy to assemble.
You can find bed tents with varying safety measures built in to prevent elopement.
Some of these beds for autism can be bolted to the floor, or easily moved within the room, while others allow more flexibility for travel, allowing families to potentially spend a night in a hotel, or at grandmas house.
If you really want a top of the line bed, the company to check out is Cubby Beds! They create “smart beds” that has almost all of the features a parent could want for their child with autism.
Their beds have circadian lights built into them to help mimic natural lighting, soothing speakers for a calming environment, and even a monitoring camera!
Since these are top of the line, the price is pretty high, but they do a great job working with insurance companies to get a decent portion of the bed covered.
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Getting Your Child To Sleep
Encouraging your child to eat foods that are rich in sleep-friendly nutrients is a great way to enhance their slumber. Pumpkin seeds are an excellent choice as they are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid used by the body to make melatonin. They are also high in magnesium, a calming nutrient with low levels being linked to anxiety and poor sleep.
Kiwi, which is very high in sleep-enhancing vitamin C, is rich in serotonin which the body converts to melatonin. Tart cherry juice is another excellent choice for promoting sleep. It actually contains melatonin and also blocks an enzyme that breaks down tryptophan.
Avoiding chemical food additives is another way to help your child sleep. Flavor enhancers that are derived from glutamate, the most popular being monosodium glutamate , are found in many processed foods and can negatively affect your childs behavior and cause restlessness. Artificial colors, found in many drinks, candy, and snack foods, can lead to hyperactivity, inattention, and poor sleep.
Taking melatonin supplements is another way to help children get the slumber they need. In fact, there is evidence suggesting that many people with ASD benefit from using melatonin. If you give your child melatonin, make sure you stick to the doctors dosage recommendations.
How To Get An Autistic Child To Nap At Daycare
Children and individuals with Autism find routine and familiarity comforting, so starting daycare can be a challenge because it disrupts their daily routine with unfamiliar people, sounds, and expectations. If the child is experiencing stress and overwhelm, but is still required to nap at daycare, this can be a big challenge. But, daycare can become a familiar routine for children with Autism as long as they are given a chance to practice their new routine in their new environment.
Have you ever tried to sleep while you were anxious and stressed out? Not easy, is it? This is often what happens for children with Autism when it is time for naptime at daycare. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to help your child get comfy and start snoring even when they are at daycare!
Here are three important steps to follow when transitioning your special needs child to a daycare setting:
Take at least a few days with your child to get acclimated. At first, your child may not even want to go through the door! But dont despair. Be patient. Spend time with your child at the daycare facility exploring their colorful toys and fun activities together. Do this well before your childs first official day at daycare.
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Sleep Hygiene The Dos
While there are things you should avoid when preparing your child for bed, there are some things you should do to make the process easier. Here are the healthy sleep habits that can help children with autism and sensory disorders get healthy sleep.
For more information about healthy sleep hygiene for individuals with autism, visit:
Tip : Limit The Amount Of Time Spent In Front Of The Screen
Kids today love to stick their faces in any device they can get their hands on. Whether its the television or an android phone, screen time needs to be limited. Set a reasonable amount. Were not saying that its harmful. Your child will learn a great deal from the internet. But, too much is too much. If screen time conflicts with sleep time, thats where youll need to draw the line.
Kids shouldnt do anything after bedtime. You can promise your child that they will get access to the device the next day. But put your foot down at bedtime. Screen time is like an addiction that has to be kept under control.
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Teach The Parents Well:
The Tylers learned about Malows newest sleep education study when they spotted a flyer in their pediatricians office early this year. They called and were connected with Susan Masie, an occupational therapist who oversees a group practice in Franklin, Tennessee. Masie is one of six therapists in the greater Nashville area a mix of occupational, speech and behavioral therapists and a nurse trained by Malows team to deliver the same program tested in the 2014 study. The Tylers participated in the trial, which aims to ultimately include 30 families, to see whether the approach works in a real-world setting.
The Tylers completed a set of questionnaires about Jaxons sleep habits and their primary concerns. Then came the most exciting part for Jaxon: He got to wear the watch-like actigraphy device to provide two weeks of baseline data on his sleep patterns. They warned us he wasnt going to want to take it off, his mother says.
Quiet time: Jaxon avoids stimulating activities half an hour before bed.
To keep Jaxon from bothering his parents in the wee hours of the morning, Masie introduced another visual: a sign on his parents bedroom door showing a sleeping moon wearing a nightcap. Jaxon was not to knock while the sign was up.
“It may very well be that if the child is sleeping better, going to do better in terms of learning and behavior.” Beth Malow
Are Sleep Disorders Common With Autism
It is estimated that anywhere between 50-80% of children with autism spectrum disorders have some sort of sleep difficulty. For some children, they may have been diagnosed with insomnia.
As a sleep consultant for kids with special needs, I find that many children with autism struggle to sleep well because they have not yet developed their own way to get to sleep. We all have our own way of doing this, and if your child is reliant on you in any way to fall asleep each night they will continue to look for that help each and every time they wake up.
In addition, when a child is not getting the right balance of activities during the day it will affect overall quality of sleep. The circadian rhythm will continually be interrupted either because the brain is already too tired and cannot continue a regular rhythm, or because it is seeking more stimulation. When theres the right balance of sensory activities, physical activity, therapy, etc. sleep patterns will be more regular.
Sleep problems in children are too often overlooked. When parents reach out to their doctors to help their child rest better, they often find they dont get the help they need. In my experience, in the majority of cases, parents are told to give their child melatonin and ultimately medication to help their child with falling asleep.
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