Better Sleep Tips for Children with Autism
Approximately 2% of all children born in the U.S. has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children on the autistic spectrum frequently have problems with sleep. In fact, a large 2019 study suggests that nearly 80% of preschoolers with ASD have disrupted sleep.
Interestingly, these children often instinctively use some of the 5 S’s to calm themselves—and help them get to sleep! They may hum, spin, or make repetitive motions. And many teachers and parents notice that their children calm faster with rocking, white noise, and the use of heavy blankets.
If your child has autism spectrum disorder and trouble sleeping, here’s help:
How to Help Your Children with Autism Sleep
If your child has autism and sleep difficulties, here are some steps you can try:
Prepare for success.
Reduce junk food, like candy, chips, fried food, sweet breakfast cereal, and sugary drinks (including undiluted apple juice), and anything with caffeine, like chocolate, teas, herbs, and supplements. Consider asking your pediatrician about the potential benefits of a gluten-free, casein-free diet. (Right now, there’s insufficient evidence that shows this diet helps, but some parents of children with autism find this diet works wonders.) And make sure your child gets plenty of sunshine, fresh air, and exercise during the day. In the evening, you’ll want to use every trick in your bedtime routine. An hour before sleepy-time, dim the lights, turn off the TV, stop roughhousing, and turn on some soft white noise in the background. Children on the autism spectrum can be especially rigid and resistant to change, so make sure you follow your beddy-bye ritual to the letter.
Create good nighttime habits.
If your child’s nightly cries disturb the family or neighbors, you might be tempted to sleep with your child until that settle down and sleep. But know that if you place your child in bed awake, they’re more likely to learn to self-soothe and put themself back to sleep if they wakes during the night. To boost your chances of success, use the rough, rumbly white noise, like SNOObear, all night long. If you haven’t been using white noise, introduce it slowly. Initially, play it quietly in the background during the evening. Next, begin using it quietly all-night long. Gradually increase the volume over 3 or 4 nights until it reaches the noise level of a shower.
Try “right-brain” communication tips.
Many parents find that the right-brain Happiest Toddler communication tips, like Toddler-ese, gossiping, magic breathing, and patience stretching are particularly helpful with children with left-brain verbal delays (like autism) throughout childhood…and well beyond.
Consider These Calming Sleep Routines for Children with Autism
Put your child in a heavy vest or use a weighted blanket.
Brush your child’s skin gently with a hairbrush or backscratcher.
Snuggly swaddle their upper body.
Use a very silky blanket as a comforting lovey.
Spray a little lavender mist into the air as a signal that it’s time to sleep.
Dim or block all lights, including the TV, clocks, hall lights, streetlights outside the window and more. However, if a very dim night light reduces your child’s anxiety, feel free to keep it on.
Some children with ASD may benefit from an extra-sturdy crib that can withstand bouncing. Many medical supply stores carry these types of cribs, with some built low to the ground and others featuring a safety enclosure.
Your doctor may also recommend giving a magnesium supplement to your child. (Magnesium may help regulate neurotransmitters related to sleep.) Another possible recommendation: 3 to 10 milligrams of melatonin 30 minutes before bedtime. Research has shown that melatonin can be a safe and effective option for children with ASD who suffer from insomnia.) Finally, some health care providers may even suggest a prescription sleep medicine.
How Much Should Kids with Autism Sleep?
Good sleep is as essential for keeping all kids healthy. It’s needed for development, functioning, emotional and behavior regulation, immune health, and more. Here’s how much sleep children should get each night:
- Newborns: 16 to 17 hours, including naps
- Age 4 to 12 months: 12 to 16 hours, including naps
- Age 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours, including naps
- Age 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours, including naps
- Age 6 to 12 years: 9 to 12 hours
- Age 13 to 18 years: 8 to 10 hours
If your child doesn’t regularly sleep within the ranges above, has difficulty falling asleep, or wakes up repeatedly throughout the night, it’s a good idea to consult your child’s pediatrician.
For additional helping babies sleep, check out more of Dr. Harvey Karp's baby sleep advice!
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.