Autism Sleep Problems - A Guide on How to Help a Child with Autism to Optimize Sleep
Updated: May 29, 2022
I knew way before that I will have sleepless nights once I have a baby. But I never knew that this so-called “autism sleep problem” is a battle I will force myself to do for years.
My son would usually be like any of these:
He would sleep late afternoon, woke-up at around 7 pm, and would be okay to go to bed again at 1 am.
At bedtime, he would like to walk around the bedroom and just refuse to lay himself in bed.
Up to 3.5 years old, he would still want to be coddled like a baby. Imagine carrying a child of about 15 kilos.
Fortunately, my husband and I were able to fully figure it out when he was about four years old. So to help you, parents who have this issue, here are some ways that helped us enjoy every night with our child. No pills included!
1. Treat Your Bedroom as a Sacred Temple
One hack that most of us are probably aware of but unmindfully disregard is that we should treat our bedroom as a bedroom. It’s not a place for toys, TV, gadgets, and laptops.
This will help to set the mood and habit that a bedroom is for sleeping, and our kids will not be excited to see or play things that will prolong their awaken hours.
This does not mean though that you will go to sleep automatically. Be mindful not to make your child feel that it is the end of the day but instead it is an opportunity for you to bond deeply.
Please see my related blog post here: A Quick Tip on Sleep Problems of Kids with Autism
2. No Air Conditioner
When my son was born, we were living in a house that is not well ventilated so we really don’t have much choice but to rely on air conditioners. Fortunately, when he was about 4 months old, we moved to a house that allows us to just make use of natural air and electric fans.
Voila! The first night, his sleep was way much better. He slept the entire night without interruption.
Though there are still nights when he would be suddenly awakened, it’s more manageable already unlike before when we have an air conditioner in our room.
Though experts say to keep your bedroom on the cool side (because when it's cooler you go into hibernation mode), for sure it does not mean that you rely on air conditioners.
For us, what really works is utilizing natural air with just a little help from a simple electric fan.
3. Don’t Coddle Too Much
Looking back, I think this is the most difficult thing we’ve experienced as to our bedtime. My son, then at about 3 years old, still wants to be coddled like a baby before going to sleep.
I admit it’s our fault. At that time, my husband was still working at his 9-5 office job and at night, both of us are so tired already that it seems our only goal at bedtime is just to put our son to sleep. So, we kind of just obeyed whatever my son’s preference was in sleeping.
Fortunately, my husband decided to quit his job and we were able to figure out how we can resolve this.
From long-time coddling in a standing position, we gradually accustomed our child to a short coddle in a sitting position.
And since both of us were working from home, we became more patient and strategic about my son’s sleeping behavior.
4. Bed-sharing (and his side of the bed)
We are bed-sharing with our son since he was a baby and our bed was placed in the corner of the room.
As I mentioned earlier, my son has this habit of getting up from the bed and doing things just to make him feel awake. I think since we learned not to coddle him anymore, this is his way of coping.
What we did, when we turned the lights off, we put him in a side corner of the bed against the wall where he can’t really go anywhere he wants. My husband and I became the “fence” of the bed.
This may be a bit tricky in the beginning because you’ll need to remind your child to remain to lie in bed or at least be seated instead of jumping or walking on the bed. You also need to remain awake because if he insists on roaming around, he may stumble and this may result in any untoward incident.
But this really helped us to have that “bed discipline” in our child.
5. Morning Sunshine
Getting morning sunshine is an absolute must to have a good sleep. That’s not just for kids but for adults, too. We are usually up at 7 am. We do morning walks or we just play in our backyard to do gardening or play with our pets.
6. Avoid Afternoon Nap after 2 pm
Though afternoon nap is good for kids, we noticed that a nap that lasts later than 2 pm creates a challenging night bedtime for us.
After his afternoon nap, my son also has this habit of staying in bed for almost 1 hour before he would actually get up from the bed and that seems to affect his night bedtime, too. So we make sure that at 2 pm, he’s already up and moving.
And in case he failed to have a nap before the 2 pm “deadline”, then it’s our job to make him awake the entire afternoon. We felt guilty at times, feeling that we are depriving our son of a short rest. And for some cases that he really just needs to have that afternoon nap, we just make sure to wake him up after 30 to 45 minutes.
7. Afternoon Sunshine
When my son was about 6 years old and more active and playful than ever, we see that he always wanted to go outside in the afternoon. Though we feel that he’s already quite tired and sleepy, it seems he still needs the afternoon breeze.
Our concern though was it seems he does not have the full energy to walk but he would usually be persistent to go outside.
Lightbulb! - we decided to get an e-Bike.
8. Movement and Exercise
Aside from a lot of movement and physical play that we do in the morning, we also incorporate exercises and yoga.
We usually do this 2-3x a week for 30min to 1 hour. Experts recommend that you start exercising at 7 am.
We started with simple exercises and this simple yoga pose:
Photo Credit : Childhood101.com
What I love about this was the affirmation that goes with the pose. My son was not yet verbal then so I was the one who would say it but when he started to talk at 5 years old, he would say these affirmations on his own.
I really found this so helpful because aside from teaching my son to improve his focus and motor planning, he was able to know and be familiar with these values.
He was about 6 years old, I started to research more about Yoga and I came to learn about this great book from Sonia Sumar - Yoga for the Special Child.
I will talk more about Yoga in my next blog.
9. Less Sugar 3 Hours Before Bedtime
As you may know, lots of sugar makes us more active. Unfortunately, not in a good way.
What works for us is no sugary stuff 3 hours before bedtime.
Even better, try to be mindful of your child’s sugar intake, not just before bedtime but for the entire day.
You may be surprised how much sugar is there on products that you may be somehow accustomed to consuming on a daily basis. Check the label of Milo and breakfast cereals and do research about their sugar content. The good thing is, your child may not like it anyway so don’t encourage them to consume it.
Full disclosure, our family is not perfect about this one. My son would always have chocolate cookies, pretzels, and muffins. Fortunately, my son is okay with just water. Drinking soft drinks and chocolate drinks is not something he is fond to ask for.
10. Dark Bedroom
Before, my son likes that the light is turned on while he tries to sleep. As expected, it would take him hours before he could.
So, what we did, we tried to make a more pleasant dark bedroom. We put some glow-in-the-dark decor on the bedroom’s ceiling.
At the beginning, that made him excited and we were thinking if we did the right things but nights after, that helps us make him like a dark room better.
Experts suggest sleeping in a completely dark room. They say even a small source of light from a street light or light from a clock can hinder your child's sleep time. So, try to be more observant of that and see how it affects your child's sleep behavior.
Massage is one of the first techniques used to help infants sleep and that is something I want to remind you of now.
Here’s how our massage time usually goes:
Using my hand, I lightly rub his back forming a number 8 (about 20x). There may not be a scientific reason why “8” but I read it in an article (sorry, I lost it!) and I find that this is calming for my child.
I gently rub his arms starting from his shoulders down to his hands (about 20x). Then, using my thumb I press his palm in a circular or back-and-forth motion (minimum 20x). To end the hand massage, I press the ends of his fingers using moderate pressure.
I do the same massage on his legs and feet. The same thing, I end it by pressing the tip of his toes using moderate pressure.
We also do massage using Therapressure Brush. Our therapist suggested to us that we use this and this really makes my son relaxed. (Note: Though you will see some videos on YouTube on how to use it, I decided not to expound more on this one. I think it is best if you will consult it first with your child’s therapist before using it. Ask if your child needs it, how to use it, and maybe the best time to use it. There are conflicting articles about the use of this brush and though I see the benefits of it for my son, I feel it is best that you consult it first, just to be sure.
I end it with a light upward stroke on his forehead and a one-time gentle press on the fleshy lower part of his ears.
12. Take a Shower
Before bedtime, we make sure that he’s freshened up. We do a sponge bath or give him a quick 5-minute bath if the weather is really hot.
Some parents would say that their kids get sick when they do this but I think there can be several factors that affect a child’s overall health.
What we do is we try to make sure that it’s a quick shower and we massage his back and whole body even just for 5 minutes. We also make sure that his hair is completely dry. While they may be no scientific basis for these extra steps that we do, I just thought of sharing and hopefully, it will help.
13. Follow a Regular Schedule
As much as possible, we go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Bedtime for us is at 7 pm so that will allow us to have more bonding time before we actually sleep. And then we wake up at around 7 in the morning.
Experts say that maintaining a regular sleep routine keeps our circadian rhythms in line which will help us naturally anticipate when to sleep and be awake.
Don’t get me wrong. I know there are times that you can’t really follow a strict time routine. For us, sometimes we let ourselves just enjoy the night and experience more time outside the house, and for me, that’s okay. But I think it is really important to be consciously aware that your child needs a sleep time routine + occasional breaks and not the other way around.
If you are new to meditation, it’s also a form of praying but for me, how it helped was that it taught me how to be emotionally calm and not worry about the hundreds of things I have on my schedule.
No! I don’t mean you will teach your child how to meditate. Definitely not this time when the sleeping routine itself is a struggle for you. :)
When I started doing my meditation practice, it really helped me to relax my mind and my entire body during bedtime.
And I noticed it feels like my son’s state of mind and heart is connected to mine. I don't know if you’ll believe this but when I see that my son is very sleepy but for some reason, he finds it hard to sleep, most of the time, it’s because I am lying there in bed with him thinking about a project or a client.
So, what I do, I meditate, and surprisingly, within 5 minutes or less, he’s already asleep. It sounds like a voodoo thing, I know but of course, it’s not!. It definitely works for me and my son.
In case you’re interested, I follow this guided meditation. And once you know how it works, you can do this on your own without the need for the audio: 6 Phase Meditation
Final Notes from the Spectrum Mommy
There may not be a single map that works for every child’s sleeping issues and while I wrote this with the goal of making things easier for you… please know that this may still be a trial and error thing for you and your child.
For instance, if I say no nap time after 2 pm, you may still need to “customize” it depending on how your son will adapt and depending on your lifestyle.
What I strongly suggest though, while you are trying to follow the tips that I provided, is that - don’t give up a technique that easily and just totally forget about it. If it seems it doesn’t work now, try to do it again some other time until you form the habit.
PS: As I expressed earlier, bedtime is not a cue for our child that it’s game over but an opportunity to end the day with a deeper connection that definitely will make our child look forward to bedtime. And when we connect with our child, it creates an emotional bond and it is calming for all, which ultimately helps everyone to sleep.
PPS: Last tip: Don’t be a tired horse. While the objective of this article is to optimize sleep, this may not work if you will be the one who falls asleep first before your child does.
What’s your favorite sleep hack that you do to optimize your child’s sleep and your own? Which of the tips mentioned above would you like to try?