Sleep Solutions For Children With Autism
Parents know that there are few things more exhausting than a sleep-deprived child. Recent research estimates that up to 78 percent of children with autism have difficulty sleeping. While scientists do not fully understand why that number is so high, routines and treatments have been developed to help your child get a restful night’s sleep. In this article, we will explore the connection between autism and insomnia, and discuss some simple steps that parents can take to help.
Why Many Children With Autism Have Trouble Sleeping
Researchers found that parents report a 50 to 80 percent rate of sleep problems in children with autism. This is much higher than 1 to 16 percent incidence observed in children who have not been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Researchers also found that the frequency of reported sleep problems is higher for children with ASD than for children with other developmental disabilities.
Children and adults with autism are more likely to suffer from several different types of sleep issues. Autism researchers have discovered that individuals with ASD often experience difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. They are more likely to have erratic sleep patterns, waking in the middle of the night or becoming excessively sleepy during the day. Studies have also found that children with autism experience higher rates of common sleep disturbances, such as nightmares and bedwetting. Many individuals also struggle with insomnia.
While it is difficult to pinpoint why any specific individual experiences sleep problems, researchers have identified several possible causes that are thought to be directly or indirectly related to autism. Many people with autism experience erratic sleep-wake cycles, which may be caused by an irregular circadian rhythm. We all have an internal biological clock that governs our sleep patterns, and those natural cycles are influenced in part by environmental factors like light and temperature. Scientists believe that the brains of people with autism process these signals differently which may result in irregular circadian rhythms.
Other possible causes of sleep disorders have connections to health conditions that people with ASD often experience. Children with autism are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, which often contributes to sleep issues. Up to half of all children with ASD also display symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that can cause children to be abnormally active at bedtime. Conditions such as epilepsy, gastrointestinal disorders and acid reflux, which often impact people with ASD, are known to impact sleep quality negatively.
You may discover the underlying cause in your medicine cabinet. If your child takes medication to manage the symptoms of autism, side effects could be interfering with their sleep. Prescriptions like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can cause excitement around bedtime. In contrast, antipsychotics have been known to cause excessive drowsiness, which often leads to problems falling asleep and staying asleep.
Symptoms of autism, such as difficulty expressing emotions, can also worsen sleep problems. For example, if your child struggles to communicate that she is having nightmares, you may not be aware of the issue and, thus, would be unable to help her address her feelings. Poor sleep often creates a cycle of irritability and daytime drowsiness that makes it more difficult to sleep the next night.
What You Can Do To Promote Healthy Sleep
If your child has insomnia or other sleep issues, there are several ways you can help. Your first step should be to discuss your observations with your child’s primary care provider. A healthcare professional can objectively evaluate your child’s symptoms and investigate whether a medication or another health condition may be responsible.
Your doctor can recommend treatment options to address your child’s sleep issues. For many children with autism, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has successfully alleviated the symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disorders. CBT educates patients about how their habits impact sleep and works with them to develop good sleep hygiene.
Regardless of whether your child has a diagnosed sleep disorder, environmental factors influence your child’s ability to get a full night’s rest. You can apply common CBT treatments to make small changes in your child’s surroundings and routines that will promote healthy sleep.
Look for ways to create a relaxing atmosphere at bedtime. People sleep best in bedrooms that are quiet, dark and cool. Since children with autism tend to be very sensitive to stimuli like light and sound, eliminating environmental factors that might disturb your child will help them fall asleep and stay asleep. Parents can encourage a regular bedtime by creating a soothing nightly routine that eases the transition to sleep.
Children with ASD thrive on consistency and predictability. To fulfill those needs, establish a regular bedtime routine that includes relaxing activities. Your child could take a bath, read a favorite book or listen to some quiet music. Try to keep the time and activities consistent each day. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule has been shown to improve sleep quality.
To make bedtime easier, you can also try some small modifications in your child’s daytime routines. Wake your child up at the same time every day. If waking up is a challenge, exposure to bright light in the morning, a treatment known as light therapy, has been found to make children feel more alert. Getting enough physical activity during the day helps children feel tired and sleep more soundly at night.
Restrict activities and foods that will keep your child up at night. While naps are beneficial for young or very tired children, discourage your child from napping too late in the day. Ensure your child avoids foods and beverages that contain caffeine in the evening. Do not allow your child to use electronics in the hour before bedtime. Devices such as phones, tablets, TVs and laptops emit blue light that our bodies interpret as a wakefulness cue. Exercise also promotes alertness, so discourage your child from being physically active late in the evening.
If environmental and behavioral interventions aren’t effective, there are pharmacological treatment options that you can discuss with your child’s doctor. Over-the-counter supplements may be able to help regulate your child’s sleep cycle. Melatonin supplements are widely available and promote a healthy circadian rhythm. Dietary supplements including kava, iron and valerian root may also help your child fall asleep when taken regularly. While there are few adverse side effects, you should consult with a physician before starting your child on any supplements.
Your doctor may also consider prescription sleep aids if other treatments fail to alleviate your child’s symptoms. While sedatives are often used for adults, doctors typically prescribe different medications for children with autism. Clonidine, a prescription used to treat a variety of conditions from high blood pressure to anxiety, has been found to induce sleepiness and reduce nighttime waking in children with ASD. Typically prescribed to alleviate ASD-related anxiety, the antidepressant Mirtazapine can minimize insomnia symptoms in children and young adults. However, both of these medications have known risks, so it is essential to discuss your child’s full health history when considering these treatments.
How A Good Night’s Rest Will Benefit Your Child
The main aim for all of these interventions is to improve your child’s quality of life. When children are well-rested, they behave more appropriately and do better in school. Sleep plays a vital role in your child’s cognitive development. Since our brains process thoughts and repair neural connections while we sleep, getting a good night’s rest helps your child feel more alert and has been shown to enhance long-term memory.
Being well-rested prepares your child to take on their day. An alert, relaxed child handles mental, physical and emotional challenges much better than a tired, stressed one. In children with autism, high quality, uninterrupted sleep actually reduces the risk of hospitalization.
Parents and other family members also benefit from these sleep interventions. When your child with autism sleeps better, everyone in your household is more likely to enjoy a good night’s rest. Try some of these strategies today to help your child sleep more soundly tonight.
Lexington Services offers a variety of services to help children and teens with ASD reach their full potential. If you are interested in helpful strategies and insights for parents of children with autism, follow our site for more resources.
For a similar topic, read the previous blog post.