How To Get A Child With Autism To Sleep? 20 Effective Tips

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Autism-related physiological, behavioral, and developmental impairments may lead to sleep disorders in children with autism. Sleep disturbances may impact a child’s growth, development, learning abilities, academic performance, and social interaction. It may make parents wonder how to get a child with autism to sleep comfortably (1).

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sleep problems, such as trouble falling asleep, restlessness, disrupted sleep patterns, snoring, early awakening, and parasomnias, may occur in approximately 50-80% of children with autism (2). Despite the prevalence of sleep problems, parents may incorporate various good practices in the child’s routine to help them sleep better.

Read on to know the various tips to help a child with autism sleep better.

How To Get Children With Autism To Sleep?

Enough and restful sleep is essential for a child’s growth, development, and learning abilities. An appropriate sleep setting for a child with autism necessitates a lengthy process, but it becomes second nature once established.

Here are some tips that could be effective in improving the sleep disorders in children with autism:

  1. Bedtime routine: It has been proved that adhering to a strict bedtime routine improves a child’s sleep efficiency. A bedtime routine of bath, reading, and bed can serve as regular reminders to a child that it’s almost time for bed. You may use stickers (of bathing, putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, washing hands, reading a book, and going to sleep) to provide visual support for your child’s bedtime routine (3). According to the CDC, the routine should not exceed more than 20 minutes (2).
  1. Regular and appropriate bedtime: Bedtime, wake-up time, and naptime should be consistent from day to day for a child to fall asleep on time. Any variance in timing between weekdays and weekends should be no more than an hour since it can alter sleep latency (2).
  1. Naps: Taking naps can benefit children with autism; however, try to limit your child’s afternoon naps to no more than 20 minutes and no later than early afternoon, as longer and later afternoon naps can interfere with nighttime sleep (3) (4).
  1. Safety: Children with autism are susceptible to wandering or sleepwalking. Let your child’s room be free of potentially dangerous furniture. You can also build a gate at the doorway and install alarm systems (2).
  1. Healthy sleep associations: Children with ASD exhibit strong sleep associations and patterns; falling asleep in the presence of the parents, while watching TV, or after using an electronic device. A child needs to learn to fall asleep by themselves, self-soothe, and stay in bed for the rest of the night. Healthy sleep associations can be beneficial and include praising kids for staying in their beds and providing visual support (3) (2).
  1. Ideal bedroom environment: The bedroom environment has a big impact on children’s sleeping patterns with autism. When putting a child to sleep, the room should be dark, quiet, and cool. Keeping the room’s noise levels low and reducing light exposure is critical since children with autism are sensitive to noise and have sensory difficulties (4).
  1. Soothing activities: A child takes about 15 minutes to fall asleep (2); however, if your child is not asleep even after 15 minutes, you could incorporate relaxing activities, including a warm bath, music, audiobooks, stories, deep breathing, and muscle relaxation techniques into their bedtime routine (5).
  1. Avoiding rowdy play: Before it is time to sleep, all children, including those with autism, should be winding down, not getting stirred up. Tickling, wrestling, and roughhousing would prolong going to bed. Therefore, prepare some quiet and peaceful activities, such as coloring or reading a bedtime story together to get them ready to sleep (6).
  1. Weighted blankets: According to a study, using a weighted blanket did not help children with autism sleep for longer periods, fall asleep faster, or wake up less frequently. It was still preferred to help calm your child and make bedtime more pleasant (7).
  1. Pressure touch: It has a relaxing effect on children with autism. If your child is having trouble sleeping, a gentle massage or rub-down with downward strokes is recommended. It’s especially soothing to move your hands against your child’s body in the direction of hair growth (6).
  1. Reading: Reading a bedtime story to a child after he has gone to bed can be soothing and is a tested method of lulling a child to sleep. However, reading poetry with strong rhythm, rhyme, and sing-song cadence is more effective for children with autism than stories (5) (6).
  1. Limiting the usage of electronic devices: Eliminating screen time (television and computers) for one to two hours before bedtime might help a child keep calm and ready for sleep, as children’s favorite shows are typically overstimulating (5).
  1. Avoiding caffeine: Do not encourage your child to have caffeine-containing foods and beverages (such as energy drinks, coffee, tea, chocolate, and cola) for at least two or three hours before bedtime (3).
  1. Healthy snacking: A glass of warm milk, saltines, or a piece of turkey, all of which contain the natural sleep-inducing chemical “tryptophan,” can assist your child in falling asleep (8).
  1. Avoiding water during bedtime: Drinking enough water during the day improves a child’s sleeping pattern. It prevents the habit of drinking water before bed and subsequently waking up in the middle of the night due to toilet breaks (8).
  1. Physical activity: Enough physical activity and exercise during the day can help your child fall asleep easily and deeply. Exercising before bedtime might make it difficult for your child to fall asleep (4).
  1. Activities and games: A child with ASD who wakes up early in the morning should not be kept lying in bed for an extended period since this can result in disturbed sleep throughout the night. Place safe toys and activities in the child’s room so they can play quietly once awake (2).
  1. Fabrics on pajamas and bedding: Certain fabrics and linen can irritate a child. Ensure that the child wears comfortable bedtime clothing and the mattress, sheets and pillows are comfortable (6).
  1. Medications: Most parents opt for natural remedies. However, medication is recommended if a child does not react to strategies to change sleep behaviors. Epilepsy medications, sedatives, antidepressants, and alpha agonists (Clonidine) are among the pharmaceuticals that some parents attempt (1) (6).
  1. Melatonin therapy: Melatonin is a neurohormone secreted by the pineal gland that regulates the circadian rhythm and promotes sleep. It has been found to reduce the time a child takes to fall asleep, but its effectiveness in minimizing overnight awakenings and other sleep disruptions has been inconsistent. In a study, administration of one to three milligrams of Melatonin to young children with autism improved sleep latency as measured by actigraphy (1).

Children with autism experience difficulty falling asleep that can further affect their growth, development, and learning abilities. However, several methods help improve sleep quality in children with autism. These strategies include making a comfortable and cozy sleep environment to induce sleep, limit noise levels, screen time, caffeine, rowdy plays, etc. Certain behavioral strategies also promote sound sleep. Understanding your child and addressing the issue on time could improve their overall growth and development.

Key Pointers

  • About 50-80% of autistic children experience sleep problems that can interfere with their overall growth and development.
  • Maintaining a constant bedtime routine or including naps in their daily routine will help get them to sleep.
  • Gentle massage, sleep-inducing snacks, and many more ways to try as you scroll down.

References:

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Dr. Arva M Bhavnagarwala

(MBBS, DNB)
Dr. Arva Bhavnagarwala has completed her post-graduation from Masina Hospital in Mumbai. She has worked at Jaslok Hospital and Research Center as a Clinical Associate. Currently, she practices Pediatrics at her private clinic in South Mumbai and is attached to Masina Hospital as a consultant pediatrician. Dr. Bhavnagarwala is a National Advisory Board Member of Indian Pediatrics, the official publication... more

Reshmi Das

Reshmi Das has over three years of experience as a clinical coordinator, medical content writer and medical conference coordinator. Her continuous interest in medical journals and writing makes her write well-researched articles for MomJunction. She writes health and wellness articles for children and pregnant and lactating women. Reshmi has completed her Master’s degree in Biotechnology. She is currently pursuing an Executive... more