Autism & Sleep Series: Bedtime Strategies
This week we will look at simple strategies to help children with autism get some sleep. Dealing with sleep problems and autism requires a multifaceted approach. If you have not had a chance to read them, check out our articles Creating a Good Sleep Environment and Autism and Melatonin. If you are having sleep issues with your autistic child talk to your pediatrician, therapist or medical professional for guidance. You can even print our sleep articles for your discussion.
Preparing for Bedtime by Limiting Daytime Sleep
The most effective intervention for insomnia is restricting daytime sleep. This can be very difficult if the person with autism is in the habit of taking naps and a parent is exhausted. If you don’t think you can stop your child from napping immediately you can begin to eliminate naps by systematically waking your child up early. Each day your child naps, instead of letting them wake up on their own, wake them up 10 minutes early. Continue to decrease their nap time until they are no longer taking naps.
Most experts agree that around the age of 15-18 months, children only need one nap a day. For younger children who still need a nap time, make sure they don’t nap past 2 pm. The average amount a young child naps is 60 – 90 minutes. If your child is sleeping longer, continue to wake them up early until the nap time no longer interferes with night time sleep.
Find the Right Bed Time
Prior to setting your child’s bedtime, take the time to observe your child in the evening. Track when they start to slow down or look tired. This is the time they should be in their bed going to sleep. Next, plan the autistic child’s bedtime routine so that it is finished and they are in bed at this time. If your child has difficulty sleeping you don’t want to go past this time because they could get a “second wind” making it very difficult to get them to sleep.
Create a Nighttime Routine
Creating a bedtime routine will help your child transition from the day to sleeping time. Some common bedtime activities include:
- Brushing teeth
- Getting a small drink of water.
- Taking a warm bath or shower.
- Going to the bathroom.
- Having a slow rhythmic massage.
- Reading a bedtime story.
- A hug or kiss.
- Listening to quiet or calming music
- Watching a slow rhythmic object like a liquid timer, some kind of motion lamp or the tranquil turtle.
- Say my prayers.
As you create your sleep routine, pay attention to how your child responds to different activities. Each child is different so some of these ideas may alert your child or wake them up. Most people with autism do very well with consistency and routine. Once you create a bedtime stick with it as best you can and try to maintain the order of the routine.
Use Visual Supports
Some autistic children find comfort and benefit from a visual bedtime schedule. A visual schedule can be a sleep chart, list of words, a list of simple cartoon drawings or actual photographs of your autistic child as he or she goes through their nighttime routine.
Next we will talk about relaxation exercises to help your autistic child go to sleep.