How To Help Your Autistic Child To Get A Good Night’s Sleep
A few months after birth, babies ease into more and more normal cycles of sleep and wakefulness; the number of daytime naps are reduced and sleeping at night becomes longer as a result. Some children, however, continue to have sleeping problems, especially once they start school.
Children with autism are more prone to sleep disorders; in fact, 40% to 80% of autistic children have sleeping troubles. These include difficulty falling asleep, inconsistent sleep routines, restlessness or poor sleep quality, and waking up early, making it harder for parents to raise an autistic child.
A restless night, night after night, affects not only your child but everyone in his family. Here are some lifestyle interventions and sleep aids that can help you and your child sleep better at night.
Autism and Sleep Disorders
There are several theories about autism and sleep disorders in children.
- The normal cycles of light and dark and the body’s circadian rhythm tell people when its time to go to sleep. Social cues do the same, like when children see their siblings getting ready for bed. Autistic children, however, may not respond to these cues the way they should.
- The hormone melatonin helps regulate sleep-wake cycles. In children with autism, fluctuating melatonin levels do not correspond correctly to the different times of the day. During the night, melatonin levels should rise and then dip during daytime. In autistic children, however, the reverse happens. This is because of an amino acid called tryptophan which is needed by the body to make melatonin and which is in abnormal levels in autistic children.
- Autism means that children may have increased sensitivity to outside stimuli, like touch or sound. This could also contribute to sleeping problems. A simple goodnight kiss on the forehead or tucking in of the covers may disrupt the sleep of an autistic child, compared to most kids who can sleep soundly through any mild disturbance.
- Anxiety, whose levels tend to be higher in children with autism, also adversely affects sleep.
Effects of a Bad Night’s Sleep
For everyone, lack of a good night’s sleep impacts normal everyday lives in many different ways. In children with autism, the effects are linked to aggression, depression, hyperactivity, increased behavioral problems, irritability, and poor learning and cognitive performance. The situation, of course, spills over to people in the family, most especially the parents. Parents of autistic children follow the same disrupted sleep patterns of their children.
Find Out if Your Child Has a Sleep Disorder
Here are the age-appropriate sleeping hours required per day for children:
- 1-3 years old : 12-14 hours
- 3-6 years old : 10-12 hours
- 7-12 years old : 10-11 hours
To keep track of your child’s sleeping patterns, a sleep diary would be helpful. Regularity in difficulty falling asleep or repeatedly waking up throughout the night may be a sign of a sleeping problem. You should consult with your child’s doctor right away or a specialist.
Helping Your Child Sleep Better
For children with sleeping problems, sleep medications should be a LAST RESORT. Instead, you can adapt some lifestyle changes and natural sleep aids to improve your child’s quality and quantity of sleep:
- Avoid caffeine and sugar intake before bedtime.
- Follow a regular nighttime routine: a bath, story time, and bed time which should be the same every night.
- Avoid stimulating activities before bedtime. Instead help your child relax by reading a book or listening to soft music.
- Prevent sensory disruptions during the night: heavy window curtains, carpeting, and a quiet door.
- Bright-light therapy, which involves exposing the child to periods of bright light during the morning, will help regulate the release of melatonin by the body.