Tackling Sleep Challenges

Sleep challenges are common in children and can cause stress for parents and family members.  Some simple straightforward strategies may help your child develop good sleep habits. In some cases, however, intensive treatment strategies are needed.

What does the Research Say?

Researchers have studied sleep disturbances in the autism population and have found that 52% of children age 2-5 who have a diagnosis of autism suffered were reported by their families to have sleep issues. most of the problems actually step from their rapid eye movement (REM), sleep. Some of the problems that parents reported were difficulties in falling asleep, waking up early in the morning, insomnia, sleep apnea, daytime sleepiness, etc.

What can Lack of Sleep do?

Many studies such as one completed by Devnani and Hegde, (2019) discuss how lack of sleep can cause various adverse effects on a child’s academic achievements, their social interactions, and increased behaviors, and then not to mention the toll it takes on the caregivers and adds to stress levels.

What can you do?

If your child is having sleep difficulties, try some of these recommendations. If problems persist, please ask for more intensive assistance.

  1. Use the Hours of Sleep handout to determine the average hours of sleep your child should be getting each night based on his/her age.  The black bar indicates nighttime sleep, and the white bar indicates naps. Generally, children no longer require naps after age four. 
  2. Establish a consistent bedtime and wake time for your child.  This should be the same on the weekends as during the week so that your child adapts to a regular schedule.  If your child takes naps, these should be scheduled at regular times as well. A regular routine of sleep, meals, and appropriate activities can be your child’s best friend.
  3. Establish a consistent and positive bedtime routine.  For example, take a bath, get dressed, brush teeth, go potty, and then read a book (decide how many books and stick to it).   Once the routine is finished, the child should be tucked in and left alone in the room. It is important to develop a routine so that the child learns limits and expectations. We love using visual schedules for these kinds of routines: https://howtoaba.com/teach-visual-schedules/
  4. Allow your child to fall asleep on his/her own.  It is important for the child to develop independent sleep skills.  If you lay down with your child each night until she is asleep, when she wakes in the night she will need you to help her fall asleep again.   Each of us wakes in the night, although sometimes we do not remember waking. However, if our pillow or covers have fallen to the floor we wake up because something is “wrong.”  When we realize what it is, we re-establish the conditions that allowed us to fall asleep (pillow under head, covers on) and go back to sleep. Your child does the same thing. Only, if they wake and you are not there, they want to be with you so that they can go back to sleep. 
  5. If your child wakes in the night and is not sick or in need, simply place him back in bed using a matter-of-fact tone of voice and tell him that it is “time for bed.”  If you play with him or provide a lot of attention (positive or negative), he may be motivated to continue to wake in the night to receive this individual attention from you.
  6. It is ok and often helpful if your child has a favorite stuffed animal, toy, or blanket that she takes to bed.  This toy will often help your child accept the nighttime separation from you and can be a source of comfort. The item used may change or remain consistent, depending on the child’s preferences.  This toy or blanket can be incorporated into the bedtime routine.

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