Many children have problems falling asleep and sleeping soundly through the night — in fact, 60 percent of children in America don’t get the amount of sleep they need each night.
Children who don’t get adequate sleep can struggle with increased stress and anxiety, weight gain and problems with memory, learning and reasoning. Tired, sleep-deprived children can even be misdiagnosed with ADHD.
Forty to 80 percent of children with autism spectrum disorders struggle to get adequate sleep. They may have trouble falling asleep and sleep poorly, waking often during the night and even waking up excessively early to start the day.
Researchers don’t fully understand why autism spectrum children have trouble sleeping, but it could have to do withhormonal imbalances, extreme sensitivity to stimuli,anxiety or the inability to understand social cues.Special education data collection shows that autism spectrum children exhibit poor behavior more often when they aren’t getting enough sleep.
What can you do to help your autism spectrum child sleep better? It’s important to practice good sleep hygiene and create an environment conducive to sound sleep for your child. If your child’s sleep problems persist despite your best efforts, you can talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist about safe sleep therapies for children.
Stimulants, like caffeine and sugar, can make it hard for your child to fall asleep if given before bedtime. You’re probably not giving your child cups of coffee, but chocolate, soda and tea can also contain caffeine. Avoid giving your child any foods or beverages that contain caffeine at least four to six hours before bedtime. Remember that caffeine can build up in the body as the day progresses and can remain in the body for up to 12 hours, so you may want to avoid giving your child caffeine after lunchtime.
Certain activities can over-stimulate your child as well. Avoid any “screen time” activities, like using a computer or watching television, right before bedtime. Don’t put a television in your child’s room.
Encourage Exercise Outdoors
Exercising during the day makes it easier for your child to fall asleep at night and sleep soundly throughout the night. Exposure to natural light helps regulate the hormones responsible for normal sleep-wake cycles. Make sure your child has plenty of time to run and play outside during the day — in fact, keep your child as physically active as possible throughout the day, but try to discourage excessive activity in the evening. Exercising too late at night can have the opposite effect, leaving your child too over-stimulated for sleep.
Establish a Bedtime Routine
A nightly bedtime routine can help your child begin to wind down and relax for sleep. Your routine should last 20 to 30 minutes and be predictable each night — consistency and predictability make children feel secure, especially children with autism spectrum disorders. The routine should include relaxing activities like listening to soothing music, reading a story or rubbing your child’s shoulders.
Put your child to bed at the same time of night every night, even on weekends, no matter how much he or she might beg to be allowed to stay up. Once the bedtime routine has been completed, leave the room and allow your child to fall asleep on his or her own. Teaching your child to fall asleep on his or her own can help you avoid having to get up with him or her each time he or she wakes up throughout the night.
Children with autism spectrum disorders are especially sensitive to stimuli and are much more prone than non-autistic children to be awakened by external stimuli. Make sure your child’s bedroom is dark, cool and quiet. Once your child is asleep, make sure the whole household is careful not to wake him or her up. Use thick, padded carpeting and heavy black-out curtains in your child’s room. Make sure the hinges of his or her door are well-oiled so they don’t creak.
Consult a Doctor
If you have tried everything in your power and your child is still having problems sleeping, consult your doctor for a referral to a sleep specialist. Your child may be able to benefit from therapies that are safe for use in children, like melatonin supplementationor bright-light therapy. Don’t give your child sleep aidswithout consulting a doctor first.
A significant percentage of children with autism spectrum disorders suffer from sleep problems. Sleep deprivation can take a toll on your child and on your entire family, but with your patience and care, your child can enjoy a sound night’s sleep each night.
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