If you are the parent of a child with Autism, you likely have many days when you just feel tired. Parenting is exhausting as is, but parenting a child with special needs can be next-level difficult, and that difficulty is only increased if our child is also struggling to sleep at night.
At least half of all children with Autism struggle with some sort of chronic sleep problem due to things such as sensory sensitivities, less natural melatonin production, sleep apnea (common in children with ASD), and medications. Thankfully there are several things we can do to encourage the best sleep possible in our children with autism.
Here are my “top 10 tips” for improving sleep in our children with Autism (in no particular order):
- Environment: Children with autism often have sensory sensitivities that make an appropriate sleep environment that much more important. We want it to be dark (truly, as dark as we can get it!), cool (about 68-72*F), and quiet (consider using a sound machine on the “white noise” setting to block out outside noise). Try to avoid screen-time within an hour before bed. This can affect children with ASD even more than those without. Lastly, try to keep your child in a crib until at least three years old if at all possible! Moving out of the crib too early can cause sleep struggles due to the ability to get out of bed at night.
- Nutrition: It’s not uncommon for children with ASD to have food sensitivities and intolerances. Avoid foods such as dairy that are common irritants right before bed. Limit caffeine intake during the day for older children. For babies, make sure that the baby gets a full feed every 2.5-3.5 hrs throughout the day.
- Sleep routine: Children with Autism THRIVE on routine! This can be as simple as a change of clothes, teeth brushing, singing a song or reading a book, and then going to sleep. Having a few things you do in the same order each night before sleep can give your child’s body and mind time to relax and wind down from the day. Giving your child 3, 2, and 1-minute warnings leading up to the bedtime routine may also help them adjust to the transition (and transitions can be especially hard for children with ASD). You may also consider incorporating visual cues such as a “picture schedule” or a home-made “bedtime book” with pictures of your child doing each step of the bedtime routine and going to sleep.
- Natural light: Exposing your kids to natural light first thing in the morning and dimming the lights leading up to bedtime can help to set your child’s circadian rhythm and get their body into a regular cycle and sleep and wakefulness.
- Exercise: Exercise can help to improve your child’s quality of sleep. Just make sure you aren’t rough-housing with your child in the evenings right before bed!
- Sleep schedule: For kids ages 0-3, getting enough nap time during the day and going to bed at a reasonable bedtime (between 6-8 pm) can go a long way to improving how well they sleep overnight. Babies and toddlers are very sensitive to getting over-tired, which can make falling and staying asleep much harder! For more information on nap schedules for babies and young toddlers, check out this blog post: https://takingcarababies.com/nap-schedules/
- Independent sleep: Teaching your child to fall asleep without your help is SO KEY to quality night and nap sleep. If they fall asleep with our help, they end up needing our help to connect sleep cycles as well. This can lead to night wakings, early morning wakings, and short naps. Teaching your child to do this may require some “sleep training” for children ages 5 months and older. If you’re not sure where to start, there are many books and programs available that could help you develop a plan. My favorite sleep books: Sleeping Through the Night by Jodi Mindell (for babies) or The Happy Sleeper by Heather Turgeon (great for babies AND toddlers). My favorite online sleep courses: Taking Cara Babies newborn (not sleep training but very helpful to sleep), 3-4 month (also not sleep training but also very helpful), or 5-24 month (this is sleep training) sleep courses. You can find more information about these on takingcarababies.com.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is the chemical our bodies produce to help us fall asleep and stay asleep at night. Many children with autism produce less melatonin than neurotypical children. For children who continue to struggle even after all of these efforts have been made, it may be time to consider asking the pediatrician about melatonin.
- “Okay-to-wake” clocks: For children two and older that are in a toddler bed and getting up in the night, these clocks can be a great visual aid. The clock changes colors when it’s okay for them to get out of bed in the morning. These tend to work best when being reinforced with something like a sticker chart.
- Weighted blankets: This is another one that we want to run by the doctor ahead of time (especially if your child is young!), but this can be very helpful for children with ASD who respond well to deep pressure for sensory input.
Whether your child is neurotypical or struggling with a developmental delay such as ASD, I believe that you CAN teach them to sleep well. All of these concepts will apply (although they may take more time and patience with children with ASD), and you and your family can get to where you want to be.
Please remember this: being sleep deprived is NOT a pre-requisite to being a great parent! In fact, better sleep can promote attachment, development, and learning in our children, and better mental health for moms. So let’s get those babies sleeping.