A common issue for parents of children with autism is sleep deprivation – and as anyone who has been deprived of sleep can tell you - it’s exhausting! Some children have trouble getting to sleep, some have difficulties staying asleep, some are members of the early risers club and some experience a combination of all these problems, barely sleeping at all.
So how do you help an autistic child to sleep? In this blog, SpecialKids Company will share some autism and sleep problems advice, which will hopefully help make nights easier for you and your child.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep. Children with ASD can also have sleep problems that are often not seen in other children. These difficulties include:
These sleep problems may sometimes last for a long time in children with ASD. Other times they improve as children get older.
Eliminate any medical conditions, which may interrupt sleep such as sleep apnea.
Firstly, if you suspect that your child has a medical condition affecting their sleep, it is important to seek advice from your GP. For example, if your child snores regularly, it is worthwhile exploring whether or not they have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea causes pausing of breathing, which can result in brief awakenings. Other signs of sleep apnea include bedwetting, sleepwalking, tiredness in the daytime, difficulty concentrating or behavioural issues (your child could be aggressive or hyperactive due to sleep deprivation). Your GP can arrange a sleep study that can diagnose the condition and treatment can be provided.
Continence Issues, Bedwear and Bedding
Lots of children with autism are not toilet trained or experience bed wetting at night. This can affect their sleep and make them uncomfortable, so it’s important that you have the right products to ensure that they feel as secure and comfortable as possible.
If your child is incontinent, your local continence service should be able to provide your child with products, such as nappies to wear.
If they are prone to leaks or wetting the bed, special needs bedding might help, such as Kylie Bed Protection, a washable bed pad, which is a popular product amongst parents. Because “Kylie sheets” successfully move moisture away from the skin, they can help your child to have an uninterrupted sleep despite leakages or accidents.
For those who are prone to smearing, Zip Back Jumpsuits and Sleepsuits are highly recommended, making it difficult for children to access their nappy.
You can buy adapted footed sleepsuits, which are great for colder weather if your child is prone to not keeping a duvet over them. You can also buy Fidget Bum bedding, if they find it difficult to keep a cover on at night. This specialist bedding is not only designed to stop them from losing the covers, it can also stop them from falling out of bed. It has a chunky zip at either end and stretches snuggly around a toddler bed or single bed mattress. This particular bedding is great for children with sensory needs, who like to feel snug and secure at nighttime.
Consider a White Noise Machine
It’s important to consider the sound environment of where your child sleeps. White noise can help some children fall asleep and stay asleep. It’s a sound that remains consistent and can block out changes in noise, like a dog barking or the pesky hallway floor creaking as you walk across it. If your child does wake up, the sound might be soothing to them and help them to fall back asleep.
White noise doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s definitely worth trying!
Try to Address any Communication Difficulties
Unfortunately, it’s common for children with autism to have difficulties communicating how they feel and what they need. It might be that your autistic child does not like to sleep alone. This could be because of separation anxiety or night terrors, which is hard for them to communicate with you. It’s therefore important to ensure that the sleep environment is the best that it can be to suit your child’s needs.
A regular bedtime routine can be beneficial. Using a social story or PECs to help communicate, you should give your child plenty of warning that bed time is approaching so that they can prepare themselves. You could look into letting them take their favourite object to bed as a comforter and should consider the lighting of the room too. Perhaps they like a light to be kept on or they like it extremely dark, in which case you could buy some blackout blinds.
Keep a Sleep Diary
Keeping a sleep diary may help you to identify particular issues or habits that your child might have and in turn, identify strategies to aid sleep. A sleep diary is helpful to show your GP and can also help with things like your Disability Living Allowance (DLA) application.
Use Relaxation Techniques
Before bedtime, it is a good idea to avoid eating and sugary drinks. You should limit screen time, if possible, and exposure to bright lights for an hour or two beforehand as these can impact on sleep.
Relaxation techniques can be explored, like having a bath, some quiet time or some deep-pressure techniques to help your child to wind down before going to bed.
Melatonin for Autism
Melatonin is a hormone that’s produced in the brain. Your body produces more melatonin when it’s dark and less when it’s light.
Melatonin maintains your circadian rhythm, which is your internal 24-hour clock. Your circadian rhythm helps to control when you fall asleep, how long you sleep and when you wake up. What is melatonin used for?
Melatonin can be used to help children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who have sleep problems fall asleep quicker, sleep for longer and wake up fewer times in the night. It might also help improve daytime behaviour in some children with ASD.
Your child’s paediatrician might suggest trying melatonin if your child struggles to sleep. Some parents find that melatonin capsules or liquid can help to establish a good sleeping pattern. This is a personal choice and something to discuss with a medical professional.
We hope that these tips help you and your child to get some much-needed sleep and avoid the wide awake club!
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Swimming is a fantastic inclusive activity to do with children with special needs. It’s a great sensory experience that is good fun and has positive benefits for both physical and mental health. It is also an activity that can be done all year round and doesn’t have to be weather dependent (depending on where you choose to swim!).