Improving Sleep in an Autistic Child

sleeping autistic child


Finding the right combination of tools, strategies, and routines will take some trial and error.

As you trial sleep tools and make changes to routines and environments, be sure to keep a sleep log or sleep journal. Subtle changes can have drastic effects on your child’s behavior, so keep track of your observations by writing it down.

Consider jotting down diet changes, bedtime adjustments, the frequency of wake-ups, wake-up times, and behaviors completing the bedtime routine.

Even small changes can add up to a big difference over time and it’s too easy to lose sight of your efforts without the written log.

1) MELATONIN FOR AUTISM SLEEP ISSUES 

Some doctors and parents are combining behavioral approaches to sleep issues with over-the-counter melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the pineal gland during the sleep cycle and it has been used as a supplement to treat sleep disturbances in kids with ADHD and autism.

A study in the 2008 Journal of Child Neurologyresearched the effects of melatonin in the treatment of insomnia in children with autism and found that 60% of parents reported improved sleep. The 2006 Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders reports that long-term melatonin treatment was effective overall and no safety concerns were found for continuing melatonin treatment.

As with all over-the-counter medications, you want to ensure the correct dosage for your child. Believe it or not, melatonin is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so the dosages vary by manufacturers and medication form (pill, liquid, dissolvable lozenge).

Because some children with autism are also on psychotropic medications, finding the right dose of melatonin can be a tricky task so it’s best to work with your pediatrician to consider all of the variables that are specific to your child.

According to Dr. Craig Canapari, director of Yale Pediatric Sleep Center, “In general, I would start at a low dose (0.5–1 mg) and increase slowly. Recognize that melatonin, unlike other medications, is a hormone and that lower doses are sometimes more effective than higher ones, especially if the benefit of it reduces with time.”

2) ASSESS YOUR EXISTING BEDTIME ROUTINE

Establishing a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine can help your child begin to calm himself down.  This routine is important for all children, but even more so for children with autism.  

A warm (not hot) aromatherapy bath, short story, and lotion massage can help offer calming sensory input while providing visuals of the routine supports predictability and understanding.

3) TAKE A CLOSE LOOK AT WHAT YOUR CHILD IS EATING 

You may be surprised at the sugar content in common kids snacks! As adults, we’re mindful of limiting sugars and caffeine as we approach bedtime, but don’t forget to consider how your child’s diet may be impacting their sleep readiness. Also be mindful of the nutrients that are lacking in your child’s diet. Foods that contain tryptophan, magnesium, calcium, vitamin B6, and naturally-occurring melatonin may be helpful additions to your child’s dinnertime meal!

For more information on foods that affect sleep, check out this resource here.

4) IMPROVE DAY AND NIGHT TIME LIGHTING

Natural and environmental lighting plays a role in our sleep-wake cycle and it’s not always a positive effect! Certain kinds of lighting affect one’s arousal level more so than others.

For example, daylight and fluorescent lighting are stimulating. Limiting screen time 2 hours prior to bedtime and avoiding brightly lit rooms will help regulate your child’s circadian rhythm.

Research has supported that red-hued bulbs do not affect the circadian rhythms, so if a nightlight is needed, consider swapping out the typical bulb for a  red-hue.

5) A SPECIAL AUTISM BED TENT

autism bed tent

Companies are now making enclosed beds, or bed tents, which provide a contained, cozy, safe space for sleep.

There are many styles – separate free standing units, pop-up types that rest on top of the mattress and after-market canopies that strap to the bed frame itself. Some are inflatable, portable and easy to assemble.

You can find bed tents with varying safety measures built in to prevent elopement.

Some of these beds for autism can be bolted to the floor, or easily moved within the room, while others allow more flexibility for travel, allowing families to potentially spend a night in a hotel, or at grandmas house.

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