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Tips and hints to help your child sleep  

“We are such stuff that dreams are made on” William Shakespeare

Frustrated that your child finds it hard to fall or stay asleep? Maybe they wake up extremely early EVERY morning or perhaps depend on your physical affection to drift off at night? If this sounds like you and your child, read on!

It is common for children with autism spectrum disorders to experience problems with sleep, impacting your child’s development, brain functioning and overall day to day life. I know it may seem hard to believe, but sleeping, is a behaviour, and within the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), science shows that if it is a behaviour, it can be learned (parents – take a sigh of relief!)

Here are six tips and hints (we call them behavioural strategies) that may be useful in helping you, and your child, catch those all-important Zzzzz’s. 

1) Make sure to rule out any medical possibilities 

Before any behavioural strategies or sleep interventions can be put into place, it is extremely important to first address any medical issues that may be affecting your child’s sleep. For example, children can struggle with tummy problems, such as constipation, colic, or irritable bowel syndrome that could be affecting their sleep patterns. So, see a specialist! It is also important to continue to consider their physical development stage e.g., teething, growing pains, as these may require different approaches to those mentioned hereon in.

2) Develop a bedtime schedule 

This may seem like an obvious one, but developing a consistent bedtime routine, with predictable indicators that it is nearing bedtime, is essential in your child learning to ‘wind down’ from their day. Some ways you can begin to create a consistent routine are:

  • Begin to prepare for bedtime around an hour before you plan to put them down to sleep.
  • Fine motor activities are a great way of helping your child ‘switch off’ and ‘wind down’, as they require concentration to a task and can have a calming effect. Things like puzzles, beading or posting shape sorters are great winding down activities. Try to stay away from toys that overly excite your child an hour before bedtime.
  • Here’s the tough one – turn off those devices! This will be child dependent, as yes, some children are able to wind down whilst still having access to devices right before bed, however if you have a child that is struggling to fall asleep, this could be a key variable as to why! 
  • Melatonin, the bodies sleep hormone, is released more effectively when lighting is dimmed. So, begin to turn those dimmer switches down, turn lights off and lamps on to help get your child’s sleep hormones circulating.
  • Another weird one but trust us – Give them a banana! If you are concerned your child is hungry before bed, bananas are a great source of melatonin, which will help them drift off and will keep them sustained whilst they enter dreamland! 
  • Finally, when it is time for bed, try to keep accessible toys in the bedroom to a minimum, and instead try to spend more high-quality time giving cuddles and reading a story or singing a calming song. This should be the last thing you do before saying good night. 

Every child will need a slightly different amount of sleep. According to UK health care, some typical guidelines on hours of sleep a child must get based on their age are provided below. 

  • Age 1-3: Your child will need 12-14 hours of sleep. At this age children will typically have 2-3 naps per day. They will typically go to bed between 7 PM and 9pm and wake up between 6am and 8am. 
  • Age 3-4: Your child will need 10-13 hours of sleep per day. Naps will get shorter, and they will tend to get most of their daily sleep at night.  
  • Age 5-6: At a preschool age, it is recommended that your child will need 9-11 hours of sleep. 

3) Environmental variables 

Consider the environment. You will want to ensure that your child’s bedroom is a place where they feel safe and comfortable. For example, you will most certainly have a preference on how you like your room to look, smell, and feel (which is a part of your learning history and physiology) and that means, that your child will likely have these physiological preferences as well. Environmental factors such as light, temperature and noise in a room will have an impact on your child’s sleep. See what works or doesn’t work for your child. Play around with (but keep it consistent for a few days at a time so you can measure) changing the fabric of their pyjamas, or maybe they prefer no pyjamas at all, having the window slightly ajar, or trying blackout curtains. As much as we can we want to try to see what we can change in the immediate environment, to make the behaviour of sleeping more likely to occur. 

5) If needed – Prepare a visual schedule 

A visual schedule can be a great way to help your child transition to their bedroom. They can be very useful for visual learners to show them how the bedtime routine happens, in sequence, so they know what to expect before it happens. Through the use of pictures, words or icons your child may begin to learn their bedtime routine and create a predictable schedule they can rely on. 

6)  Sleep interventions designed and personalised to your child by a BCBA 

If you have attempted all the above tips and hints and your child is still struggling to sleep – don’t worry! There are sleep interventions based on principles of behaviour that our Board-Certified Behaviour Analysts (BCBA) can help you to implement. For more information on Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention (EIBI), and teaching your child how to sleep, get in touch today! 

Erika Wilson-Elisée, MSc – Lead Therapist, First Bridge Centre