Sleep Problems (and Solutions) in Children on the Autism Spectrum
Children who fall within the autism spectrum often have trouble sleeping. Studies have shown that up to 80% of autistic children have sleep issues at least at one time in their childhood.
As a parent, you want to do whatever you can to ensure your child gets enough high-quality sleep. What do you need to know about sleep problems in children with autism and their solutions?
What Causes Sleep Problems in Children on the Autism Spectrum?
We are still not sure why autistic children have trouble sleeping. The theories we do have connect these issues with social cues and melatonin regulation.
While we use our circadian rhythms to determine when it’s time to go to bed and wake up, we also use social cues. Children will see their siblings getting ready for bed, or they will understand that there is a routine in the evening that concludes with them going to sleep.
Children with autism have difficulty understanding and interpreting these cues, so they may not understand it’s time to go to bed.
Another theory that tries to explain why autistic children have trouble sleeping discusses melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. The body needs an amino acid called tryptophan to produce melatonin. Research has found that children with autism either secrete too much or too little of tryptophan and at the wrong times of the day, which could be causing their nighttime restlessness.
As autistic children also often suffer from anxiety, it could also play a role in their inability to settle to sleep and stay asleep.
What Are the Common Sleep Problems in Children with Autism?
Children on the autism spectrum will have one or all of the following sleep issues:
Difficulty Settling Down
Children should take no more than 20-30 minutes to fall asleep. In children with autism, this is often much longer. They may need a specific toy or object; they may need to sleep in a specific place or require the presence of a specific person. When these needs are not met, the child can become very restless and unable to fall asleep.
Waking up during the Night
While most children will wake up during the night and settle back down, children with autism may have difficulty falling back to sleep. They may get worried or anxious or want to see their parents or siblings, or they may wet the bed.
Some children with autism will stay in their room awake and play, while others will leave their room and wake a family member.
Shorter Sleep Cycles
Children with autism also sleep less than is expected of children their age. We are not sure if their condition is the cause or if it’s caused by their inability to fall asleep and their repeated waking.
This lack of quality sleep can cause behavior problems during the day, shorter attention spans, and heightened anxiety. A child that is consistently sleep deprived will suffer from impaired memory and poor mood.
How to Help Your Child Sleep Better
Even though we are not sure what causes sleep issues in children with autism, there are several things you can do to help them sleep better:
- Start by getting a high-quality mattress. Look for mattresses that don’t contain fiberglass, which will be kinder on the skin and lungs and help sleep more comfortably.
- Avoid giving your child any stimulants, like sugar or screen time, before bedtime.
- Establish a specific bedtime routine your child enjoys, one that is soothing and calming, and do it every night without fail, no matter where you are and what is going on around you.
- Read a book in bed, listen to soothing music, or make up a story: whatever your child prefers to fall asleep to. Make sure the activity is relaxing and silent and that it is done in their bedroom.
- Make sure there are no screens in the bedroom, including phones and TVs. You can bring them back during the day if you need to, but eliminate them pre-bedtime.
- Make the room as dark and silent as possible. Get blackout curtains for the windows and install a thick carpet. Make sure the bed does not squeak and the door does not creak. If you check in on your child during the night, make sure they can’t hear you.
- Keep the temperature in the room consistent and let plenty of fresh air in before bedtime.
- Talk to your pediatrician about melatonin supplements for your child. They may be able to help them fall asleep more easily. Don’t give your child any medication or supplement before discussing it with their doctor first.
Sadly, we still don’t understand autism enough. However, what we have learned so far from experience should help you and your child find a bedtime and sleep routine that isn’t upsetting and that results in better quality rest.