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My son has sleep problems. What can help?

February 17, 2012 55 comments

 Today’s “Got Questions?” response comes from two clinicians in Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN). Neurologist and sleep specialist Sangeeta Chakravorty, M.D., is director of the pediatric sleep program at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh; and psychologist and sleep educator Terry Katz, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado School of Medicine and co-founder of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

First, know that you are not alone! Many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep through the night. So Autism Speaks’ Autism Treatment Network (ATN) clinicians have been studying how to help them sleep better. One result of this research is the Sleep Strategies for Children with Autism: A Parent’s Guide, made possible by the ATN’s participation in the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P). Starting next week (Feb. 21), this tool kit will become available for free download from the ATN’s Tools You Can Use webpage.

Here are some of the tips that we and our patients’ parents have found most helpful:

1. First, ask your child’s doctor to screen for any medical issues that may be interfering with sleep.

2. Prepare your child’s bedroom for sleep: Is the temperature comfortable? Does your child like the sheets, blankets and pajamas? A dark bedroom promotes sleep, but your child may need a night light for comfort. If unavoidable noises present a problem, ear plugs or a white noise machine may help. Keep the bed just for sleeping, not for playtime or time outs. And try to keep the environment consistent: e.g. If you use a night light, leave it on all night.

3. Maintain good daytime sleep habits: Have your child wake up around the same time each morning. Try eliminating daytime naps. Help your child get plenty of exercise and sunlight, but avoid vigorous physical activity within three hours of bedtime. Likewise avoid caffeinated food or drink (chocolate, cola, etc.) in the evening.

4. Prepare for bed: Keep bed time consistent, choosing a time when your child will be tired but not overtired. Develop a calm and consistent bedtime routine. Keep the lights low.

5. Consider using a visual schedule to help your child learn and track the bedtime routine.

6. Teach your child to fall asleep without any help from you. If your child is used to sleeping next to you, substitute pillows or blankets. If you can, leave the room. If this is too difficult, stay in the room without touching—for instance in a chair facing away from your child. Over a week or so, slowly move your chair toward the open door—until you’re sitting outside.

7. Teach your child to stay in bed. Set limits about how many times your child is allowed to get out of bed. Use visual reminders such as one or two bathroom and drink cards per night. Put a sign on the inside of the bedroom door to remind your child to go back to bed. If your child does get out of bed, stay calm and put him or her back to bed with as little talking as possible.

8. Reward your child for sleeping through the night, and remind your child of your expectations. Consider drawing a contract of expectations and rewards. Small rewards are best.

Helping Teens Sleep
Like young children, teens need adequate exercise and sunlight and consistent waking and bed times. However, adolescence brings hormonal changes that can delay the onset of sleepiness until late at night. Unfortunately, many middle and high schools start early! Find out if a later class schedule is an option. In any case, work with your teen to set a good bedtime. And teens who drive need to know NEVER to drive when sleepy.

Helpful steps include having your teen finish homework and turn off computer and TV at least 30 minutes before bed. Keep lights low. A light snack before bed can help growing teens sleep through the night. Finally, it’s probably a good idea to remove electronic devices, including TVs, from the bedroom.

Have more sleep questions? Join us for a live webchat with neurologist and autism sleep expert Dr. Beth Ann Malow, M.D., of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, on Feb. 21, from 1 to 2 pm Eastern. Join via the Live Chat tab on left side of our Facebook page

Got more questions? Please send us an email at GotQuestions@autismspeaks.org.

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