Welcome to Autism Blueprint Quick Tips; A mini episode where I share a quick nugget of knowledge to help you on your autism journey.
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Today’s Topic: How To Help Your Child With Autism Sleep Better
- The importance of sleep for your child and for YOU.
- How sensory issues can affect sleep.
- The reason my child wouldn’t lay back down in the middle of the night.
- How your child’s gut plays a role in sleep.
Transcript of this episode
One of the biggest problems I hear about from parents is getting their children to fall asleep and stay asleep. My own son would stay up for days without sleep when he was younger, and that meant that I wasn’t sleeping either. I probably don’t have to go into the importance of sleep for you, the parent, but in case you need a reminder, sleep is necessary for all our bodily functions to run properly; your emotional state, attention span, moods, and even your immune system, are all affected by the amount of sleep you get- or don’t get. It’s definitely important for your child to get the sleep they need, but I think it’s even more important for you, the parent to get the sleep you need.
There are lots of reasons sleep can be difficult for the average person; and while these are important, I don’t want to dwell on them too long, because the reasons kids with autism have trouble sleeping could be different. But these are worth mentioning, because somethings we can’t see the forest for the autism trees- we spend a great deal of time thinking it’s the autism when it could just be something very simple.
Sleep and screen time
The amount of screen time your child has before bed, what they’ve eaten or not eaten, and the temperature of the room can all be things that will affect anyone’s sleep- Let’s remember that melatonin, which is a hormone made by your body- affects our ability to sleep. Our bodies are designed so that when it gets dark outside, our eyes notice and send a message to the body to release melatonin. This in turn makes us sleepy. Which is why fixating your eyes on a screen- computer, tv or brightly lit tablet- can affect our body’s natural response to want to sleep. I find it helpful to stop screens about two hours before bed and instead have a different activity such as reading, or listening to soft music. It’s also helpful to have a bedtime routine, where your child will begin getting themselves ready for sleep- epsom salt baths, soft pajamas, choosing books to read together and teeth brushing are just a few activities they can include in their routine. I also recommend you create a checklist of these steps so they can rely on them and so they will be the same each night. Eventually, you’re helping the brain understand that when the body engages in these activities, your brain is settling down to sleep.
To sleep with, or not to sleep with
While it’s ideal to get our kids to sleep in their own beds, without us, it’s often very difficult for our kids on the spectrum. So, there is absolutely no judgement here if you lie own next to your child to help them sleep, or if they even sleep with you. The key is to really think about what makes more sense for you, the parent- there was a time when it was more important for me and my son to get a full 8 hours of sleep so I could work and he could get up for school in the morning, rather than teaching my child to be self-sufficient in his sleep habits. So for several years I would lie next to him so he could settle down, and when he was asleep, I would sneak out of his room and go to my own bed. Often I would be so exhausted I would fall asleep next to him and not bother to get up. If you’re doing this, please don’t let a doctor, behaviorist or anyone else shame you about it. You need to do what you feel is best for you. Now, there came a time when I got tired of this, and made it a point to help my son fall asleep on his own. But this will ebb and flow for us based on how he feels. Ben has some autoimmune and digestive issues which flare up at times, making it even more difficult to get his body to regulate when he needs it to. So this brings me to my next suggestion, which is to give you child the benefit of the doubt.
Aim for understanding
Remember that your child is not purposely trying to make your life miserable. And while kids often want to stay up for fear they might be missing out on something, if you can make a bedtime routine that is enjoyable, and make sleep a natural part of the rhythm of life rather than something that you punish your child for then they don’t do it correctly, you’ll have a better outcome. Punishing a child for not eating or sleeping is not recommended as far as I’m, concerned because if they aren’t doing it, there is a reason, and your job as the parent is to get to the bottom of that reason. If you’re able to ask your child about why they aren’t sleeping, and really listen to what they have to say, you can come up with some solutions together. For example, my son is very limited in his verbal expression but I am able to ask if he want the bathroom light on or off, and he is able to tell me. And his preference can change from night to night. It’s a good idea to go through the senses and address each one- our children’s sensory issues can often make it difficult for them to settle down. Some like pajamas, and others can’t tolerate clothes when they sleep. If your child is a bed wetter, the diaper or pulp could be a distraction from sleep. If you have an OT ask about brushing therapies and other deep pressure exercises that can help the body settle down before bed. This is also where weighted blankets come in. Some kids love them and others, not so much. Because it was difficult for my son to express his needs or even sometimes anticipate them, I would often give him a choice of two things “PJ’s or naked?” “two pillows or one?” “just the sheet or fluffy comforter?” Even if your child is non-verbal, they can still be taught to choose between two choices. If they can’t, get your speech therapist to start working on this skill, even if it’s pointing to their preference.
Address the senses
Next, address the temperature of the room, amount of light and smells. Our kids are super sensitive and can often hear things others cannot. So we found a fan that made a lot of white noise in my son’s room, was a great solution so he wouldn’t hear us still up in our small house. Additionally, he loved having it blow on him as well. Some kids do really well with bed tents. My son didn’t seem to like the bed tent, even thought he loved playing in it during the day- it wasn’t conducive for his sleep.
Essential oils such as lavender can be effective in helping the body relax. While i’m not an expert in oils, I would caution against using synthetic scents as many of our kids can’t tolerate them.
Sleep and your child’s biochemistry
The next thing I want you to consider is your child’s biochemistry. The greatest issue my son has that interferes with his sleep is his digestion. When he was younger, he would wake up in the middle of the night and want to stay sitting straight up. he would refuse to lie down. For a while I thought this was defiance, but after speaking with his doctor, she told me that many kids on the spectrum have acid reflux. Once we started medicating for this issue, he started sleeping through the night. We also used two pillows to keep his head elevated to elevate any of the discomfort associated with the condition. And it worked. Additionally he tends to be very gassy, so some gas x or other stomach remedies can often be helpful. I’m not a doctor so before you go giving your child these things, always consult with your doctor first- even if they are over the counter remedies or supplements. If your child is taking an antibiotic or anti fungal, this can cause them to be up at night as this is changing the PH in their guts which in turn affects the entire body. So if your child starts getting up when they never used to, consider what you may be doing differently.
Supplements and medications
Sometimes our kids just can’t settle their bodies down no matter how hard they try. In my son, for example, his adrenaline seems to be in the on position at all times and this can resulting anxiety and difficulty resting. So for us, medication was needed, and we had very good results with small amounts of a blood pressure medicine called clonidine. This was a game changer for us, as it allowed him to fall asleep and stay asleep, which in turn was better for everyone. There are also some great supplements, like GABA, 5HTP, taurine and other amino acids that can help the body feel more relaxed. Magnesium has a calming affect on the body- but there are many different kinds, so please always check with a doctor- particularly a function medicine doctor, who understands how these work in the body- before starting anything. Some supplements can have an even stronger affect than meds. Melatonin is one of those supplements that you want to use with professional guidance as it can mess with other hormones, depending on your child’s age. It also has the effects of making you sleep hard for a short period of time and then feel wide awake a few hours later. Keep in mind that every child is different and will have a number of factors that affects their ability to metabolize meds and supplements, so one size never fits all.
The last piece of advice I want to leave you with is to remember that whatever you’re going through right now with your child’s sleep, you are not alone. This is a pervasive issue among children with autism, so there are doctors and parents out there who can help. Stay connected to your village and if you don’t have village, start by connecting with other parents on our private FB group and go from there. Id love to hear about what sleep remedies you’ve tried and what has helped. Click the facebook group link in the show notes to join the conversation. Until next time, have a great week.