Every expectant parent has probably heard the words, “Sleep now, because once baby gets here, you won’t be able to!” This advice holds true for some families more than others, but most children will suffer from at least the occasional sleep disturbance. This can be especially true for kids on the autism spectrum. If your little one isn’t sleeping, it doesn’t just lead to a sleepy kid the next day. Sleep disturbances can lead to behavioral and attention difficulties, as well as making things hard on the rest of the family. Start with one toddler that won’t settle down, add a baby that’s being kept awake by the disturbance, throw in two parents who have been up all night and can’t focus the next day, and you have the recipe for chaos at home.
It doesn’t take long to get the point that you’ll try just about anything to get your child to sleep, and unfortunately, there is no magic cure-all for sleep disturbances in children. However, there are a few things you can try that might help.
Create a Routine
Put your child to bed at the same time every night, and do the same things every night before bed. For example, start with a warm bath (try adding a bit of lavender essential oil to the water; it’s relaxing), then read a story together before you tuck him in. A child with autism might benefit from a picture schedule to give him a visual reminder of what the steps are at bedtime.
Have a Designated Sleeping Space
If your little one associates his room with playtime, it can be hard to get him to settle down there. It’s not always feasible to have a separate playroom, but consider making his bed a sleep-only zone. Keep toys off the bed, aside from the necessary stuffed friends to cuddle with, of course. Think about placing curtains or a canopy around the bed, or get a cozy sleep tent to put atop the mattress to make the bed more of a separate space. You might even put a large rug under the bed to differentiate it from the rest of the room.
Keep it Quiet
Anything with a screen can keep your child awake, and trick his brain into thinking it’s time to be up even well after dark. Keep televisions and computers off. If your child seems to need some kind of light and/or noise to fall asleep, put a dim night light in her room, and install a white noise machine or play soft music. The sounds of ocean waves or gentle rain might just do the trick to lull your child to sleep. On the other hand, a cute sleep mask might help if the tiniest bit of light seems to keep your child awake.
Be Patient and Consistent
This one is so hard. Anyone who hasn’t been there can easily claim that they’ll never let their child fall asleep with them, or never give in and let him wander into the living room to watch TV until he’s out. When you’re on day three of no sleep and thinking about running away to a desert island just to be able to catch a nap, those ideas can go right out the window. All that matters is that elusive shut-eye. However, it’s in your best interests to stick it out and be as consistent as you can. If your child figures out that he can get an extra hour of movie time by having a tantrum at bedtime, those tantrums may well become a regular occurrence. If your child wakes in the night, soothe him in his bed, as unobtrusively as possible, so he’ll learn to go back to sleep there.
Each night, make a few notes about your child’s day and how he went to sleep. What did he eat? Where did he spend the day? Was he overwhelmed with sensory stimuli? This can help you determine the cause of his sleep disturbances, and you’ll be better able to address them. If your child seems genuinely afraid to go to sleep, enlist the help of a counselor to get to the root of those fears.
When Bedtime Becomes a Battlefield
-April Fox, Staff Writer
Carolina Pediatric Therapy © January 2014
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