Last post I talked about helping children sleep in their own beds rather than in their parents’ beds. Today I want to talk about just trying to help the child fall asleep period, no matter where they are (although a regular spot does help!). Most of these ideas help any person fall asleep, not just an ASD child – but autism spectrum children do have a higher rate of sleep problems than neurotypical children. As a social worker, I will be talking about behavioral strategies. In most cases I suggest trying behavioral strategies first – if they are not effective and the sleep disturbance is causing significant difficulty, then that may be the time to talk to your child’s doctor about medication options.
So, what helps?
- Have a regular bedtime routine – a certain time to start getting ready for bed, a certain time to go to bed, a certain place to sleep (I know some kids that rove all over the house and sleep one night in one place and one in another!). Remember routines for ASD children can be our friends, especially if we have a role in shaping them!
- Put the bedtime routine on your child’s visual schedule.
- If aspects of the bedtime routine are especially problematic, build those goals into your reward plan (such as your child could earn one token for getting into bed on time and staying there).
- It’s better to keep the routine the same every night of the week, and not make a big change on the weekends or during vacations. If you can’t pull that off, then only vary it by a small amount – an hour or so – rather than by half a day! If you want your child to be able to fall asleep on time on Sunday night then don’t let them sleep late on Sunday morning!
- I recommend a filling nutritious snack at the beginning of the wind down time, to prevent hunger from making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Start dimming the lights about an hour before bedtime. No screen time and lower the lights around the house, thereby sending a signal to your child’s brain that it is “dusk,” preparing the body for sleep. You might need to set up parental controls on electronics so that everything automatically turns off an hour before bed.
- Play low soothing music in the house during that hour before bed, to signal that the winding down has begun! Does it help your child if they listen to music at night in their rooms while trying to go to sleep?
- Set up activities that help your child relax. This works for older children, teens and even adults. A young child or a child who can’t read might be read to, an older child or adolescent might read to themselves or look at a picture book. Some do better with a shower or bath close to bedtime. Some families have a regular prayer time, or another ritual to end the day.You might lead your child through a relaxation exercise every night. Check out the website Stress Free Kids for some great options or download a guided relaxation or guided meditation from iTunes. Don’t do activities that wind a child up, such a running around, rough housing, arguing, and so forth.
- Have the child’s bed reserved for sleeping, so that they develop a conditioned response to being in bed. Discourage playing on the bed at other times of the day, and don’t use the child’s bed as the time out spot.
- I advise against TV, gaming systems & computers in your child’s room – for many reasons but helping with sleep is one reason. If they can’t go to sleep without some noise in the background, consider music or a some kind of sound machine (such as one that plays white noise or soothing sounds of some kind).
- Set up the room in a way that promotes sleep. If your child can tolerate the dark, that is best for sleep, but if that is too frightening, that use the lowest level nightlight possible. Think of how to make the bed feel comforting and welcoming – keep comfort items handy. If your child has certain items they need for sleep, make sure to round them up well before bedtime so there are no last minute searches.
- Expose your child to sunlight every day to help set their body clock to be awake during the day and to sleep at night (of course, while protecting them from sunburn). Morning sunlight is great for this, since it signals the body to “rise and shine!”
- Last in today’s post but definitely not least is make sure that your child gets aerobic exercise during the day to maximize the chance that they will rest well at night.
I’m sure families out there have a lot of good ideas to share. What works for your child?
Also, see my YouTube video on helping children sleep in their own beds, and my blog post on this topic.