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7 Tips for A Perfect Bedtime Routine for an Autistic Child

7 Tips for A Perfect Bedtime Routine for an Autistic Child

As you probably know, autistic children often struggle with sleep. If your child faces those bedtime battles, you’re certainly not alone! Over 80% of autistic children experience sleep disturbances. The great news is that creating a bedtime routine for an autistic child can make a huge difference.

There are so many different factors that affect sleep for our children, so it is important to remember one size doesn’t fit all. Generic sleep methods often won’t be successful, so what is? Here are 7 tips that will help you and your child sleep soundly throughout the night.

1. Create a calm environment

Creating a calm environment is really important for our children. Using soft lighting in the evening and in their bedroom helps create a calm atmosphere. On top of that, it also helps their bodies produce melatonin.

It can also set the tone for bedtime and help create a smoother transition for our children. These visual changes in lighting can help indicate it’s bedtime, which can be extremely beneficial for autistic children’s processing and understanding. 

2. Use sensory tools

Sensory needs can be very different for each child on the autism spectrum. Remember, no child is the same. Over the next few days, take notice of how your child responds to their PJs, bedding, the layout of the bedroom, etc.

Sometimes, it can be a small change that has a big effect. One thing to check is if the child likes the way they are facing in bed. I have often worked with families who found that simply moving the position of the pillows solved some of the bedtime issues.

Here are some sensory tools that could also be of help:

  • White noise: Creates a predictable and reliable sound throughout the night. Make sure you keep the white noise on all night to avoid inconsistencies. Remember, bedtime needs to be predictable.
  • Weighted blankets: Create a sense of security for some children. Remember, every child is different. While some will love the heavier sensation to make them feel safe, others will not tolerate it, making them feel very uncomfortable. Try borrowing or renting a weighted blanket first and see how your child reacts to it.
  • Soft toys: Children also may like to have toys to touch and cuddle physically. This can also help create a sense of security for the child and can be a great substitute instead of co-sleeping.
A boy sleeping with a soft toy

3. Reduce stimuli 

Reducing stimuli before bedtime is really important. If our child becomes overstimulated before bed, then the chances of a smooth bedtime routine are unlikely. Many things can overstimulate children, from playing games to baths or brushing their teeth.

Depending on your child, keep a record of what tends to overstimulate them and avoid this before the bedtime routine starts. We often are told to have a bath or shower before bed. For many autistic children, this actually overstimulates them and keeps them awake for longer.

If you notice your child is particularly active and awake after their bath, look to move it earlier in the day to avoid this overstimulation before bed. The impact on your child’s sleep can be significant if they are overstimulated before bedtime. Therefore, it’s worth investigating and establishing a proper routine to ensure long-term, restful sleep.

4. Try calming techniques

Calming techniques can be really useful, especially if your child is anxious, stressed, or overstimulated before bedtime. For example, you can try guiding your child to think about something that relaxes them and do it just before bedtime.

You can also try reading together, playing a board game, or giving your little one a relaxing massage. Implementing this after dinner, for example, will help your child to be ready for the evening and bedtime.

5. Establish a consistent bedtime routine

I can’t emphasize enough how important consistency is. However, when dealing with autistic children, it’s important to understand that consistency doesn’t mean being strict. Imposing rules and controlling everything related to bedtime can frequently result in arguments, increased stress, and meltdowns for all involved.

What we really want is a consistent approach to bedtime each and every night. My advice would be to keep the bedtime routine simple — for example, two stories and a song before cuddling and lights out.

This way, anyone doing bedtime can mirror the routine to make it predictable for your child. Predictability is good! If your child sees a routine they can predict and feel safe with, the anxiety is heavily reduced, and a smoother bedtime routine can occur. 

6. Use a bedtime social story

Visual aids and social stories can be really beneficial for allowing our children to process the bedtime routines in their own time, avoiding any pressure or demand on them.

If, for example, more than one person puts your child to bed, have a visual calendar on the fridge with a picture of the person putting them to bed that night. This will allow them to process it in their own time without the verbal communication needed.

Simple social stories can also work for some children and will, again, allow them to process any changes to the sleep schedule in their own time and at their own pace. All of this is a good basis for sound sleep. 

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7. Seek professional guidance

Luckily, there is lots of help out there. Firstly, check the bedtime routine is structured in a way that meets your child’s needs and the family lifestyle. Make sure it’s consistent and predictable for your child.

This, of course, only just touches the surface. If you would like to learn more about helping your child sleep better, then seek out some specialist help to get the right solutions in place. 

Do your research on health care providers, sleep specialists, and/or therapists. Pick one that feels right and can give you the bespoke guidance and solutions that are right for you and your child. 

Why is a bedtime routine for an autistic child so important?

Navigating sleep can be complex and often stressful. Traditional sleep methods are far too generic to work for our children, leaving us frustrated. Sleep methods need to be carefully considered to meet our child’s unique needs and preferences.

It is very important for our children (and us) to get the right amount of sleep each night. Sleep deprivation can have a detrimental effect on a family and impact the growth and development of our children. It’s absolutely crucial that children get the recommended amount of sleep in order to grow and develop to the best of their ability. 

FAQs

Q: How do I keep my autistic child in bed all night?

A: Establish a consistent bedtime routine tailored to their needs and preferences, and consider using visual schedules or calming techniques to promote relaxation and sleep throughout the night. Additionally, ensure the sleep environment is comfortable and free from distractions that may disrupt their sleep.

Q: How do I fix my sleep schedule with autism?

A: To improve your sleep schedule with autism, establish a consistent bedtime routine and environment that promotes relaxation. Avoid stimulating activities before bed and consider consulting with a healthcare professional for personalized strategies and support.

Q: Why do children with autism like routine?

A: Children with autism often find comfort and security in routine because it provides predictability and reduces anxiety stemming from unexpected changes. Consistent routines help them navigate their environment more comfortably and confidently.

Q: Do autistic kids sleep alone?

A: Some autistic children may prefer to sleep alone, while others may feel more comfortable sleeping with a parent or caregiver nearby. Individual preferences vary among autistic children.

References

A community-based sleep educational intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1750946720302099 

Amarie Carnett, Sarah Hansen, Laurie McLay, Leslie Neely & Russell Lang (2020) Quantitative-Analysis of Behavioral Interventions to Treat Sleep Problems in Children with Autism, Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 23:5, 271-284, DOI: 10.1080/17518423.2019.1646340

Ramanujam Karthikeyan, Daniel P. Cardinali, Venkat Shakunthala, David Warren Spence, Gregory M. Brown & Seithikurippu R. Pandi-Perumal (2020) Understanding the role of sleep and its disturbances in Autism spectrum disorder, International Journal of Neuroscience, 130:10, 1033-1046, DOI: 10.1080/00207454.2019.1711377

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