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Helping Autistic Children to Sleep

may 16 child go to bed at same timeRESEARCH SHOWS THAT children who have the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) commonly have sleep problems. In fact, around 50 to 80 percent of autistic children have disturbed sleep, according to the journal, Current Sleep Medicines Report. Autism sleep disorders often include frequent awakenings at night, difficulty falling asleep and not falling asleep in their own bed.

Negative consequences result from sleep problems, both in adults and children alike. Sleep issues compromise your child’s daytime functioning and learning capabilities. They also affect their neurological development and affect the entire family. Several studies have shown behavioral interventions for reducing negative sleep behaviors and improving children’s’ sleep hygiene had positive outcomes.

Reasons for Poor Sleep in Autistic Children

Autistic children experience poor sleep for many potential reasons that include behavioral, neurological and medical issues. Studies have shown possible abnormalities in the part of the brain that regulates sleep, particularly the melatonin pathways.

Limit-setting, poor sleep hygiene, and other behavioral issues often promote insomnia, and medical problems, like gastroesophageal reflux and epilepsy, can also disrupt sleep.

Children with autism often take medications that can keep them alert and contribute to issues with falling asleep. Depression, anxiety and other ASD-associated psychiatric issues can interfere with sleep. There are other concurrent sleep disorders that autistic children may experience which can also impact their sleep. These include:

    • Sleepwalking
    • Sleep apnea
    • Restless legs syndrome
    • Nightmares

What You Can Do

If your autistic child is struggling with sleeping problems, there are a number of things you can do to help your ASD child get better sleep at night. 

Keep a Sleep Diary

Keeping a sleep diary to track your child’s sleep each week can help. Include things like unusual movements, breathing pattern changes, snoring and difficulty breathing in this diary. Note your observations the following day of your child’s behavior. Sleep diaries can be helpful for your child’s pediatrician or a specialist to determine what is causing your child’s poor sleep and prescribe treatment.

Implement Specific Daytime Activities

There are activities you and your child can do in the daytime that can help them at night to sleep better. For instance, have your child go to bed every night at the same time, and wake up and get out of bed each day about the same time.

child running in sunshine.jpgOther things that can make a difference between daytime and nighttime for your child and help them sleep better include:

    • Opening the curtains
    • Getting exercise
    • Changing out of sleep clothing
    • Avoiding naps
    • Spending time in the sun
    • Setting a routine

Read a book each night to your child to help them relax or give them a gentle massage. One study showed that children with ASD prefer heavy blankets. Although they don’t improve your child’s sleep significantly, they calm them and add deep, gentle pressure that helps with sensory issues.

Give Them Melatonin

Although there are a number of autism sleep aids evaluated to help autistic children sleep better, melatonin for autism is the most promising.  Melatonin has been shown to improve the quality and quantity of sleep in autistic children and has been demonstrated to reduce negative daytime behaviors, such as compulsive and repetitive behaviors and hyperactivity. Be sure to speak with your child’s doctor before giving melatonin.

Consider Behavioral Interventions

As mentioned above, behavioral interventions work well to reduce sleep problems. They often help lessen stressful situations in the daytime to encourage better bedtime routines.

If your child is struggling with poor sleep, difficulty falling asleep, or waking up at night repeatedly, it could be an indication of a sleep problem. Make an appointment with your child’s doctor to know for sure. They’ll go over the things you can do to help your child sleep better at night. They may prescribe you autism sleep aids like melatonin. The doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist or an ear, nose and throat doctor. Although sleep problems are common in children with ASD, they often can be helped.

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