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Helping Children with Autism & ADHD Fall Asleep

The complete guide to helping your child fall asleep naturally
Andy David
Written by Andy DavidUpdated September 2019

Problems with sleeping are common for children who have ADHD and autism. If you are the parent of a child with ADHD or autism, you will know how a good night’s sleep can make a huge difference in how your child can cope the next day. When your child does not get the sleep they need, you may find your child suffers –

  • Wanting to fall asleep during the day
  • Being unable to pay full attention at school
  • Heightening of behavioral issues
  • Being more prone to hyperactivity or aggression

We all need rest to be able to function at our best, and this is even more important for children. So getting the full sleep that is required for their age is an essential part of helping your child manage their condition. A full, good night’s rest will enable your child to get on better with others and lead a normal, healthy life.

Changing the focus

So if we take the focus away from the daytime problems and put it firmly on helping your child to get to sleep, this is a positive way of making progress. If you can make the environment in the bedroom conducive to sleep, then you can change the behavior when your child is awake.

There are many common causes that are present in children with autism and ADHD. This is why it is beneficial to learn about the factors that might influence their ability to get a good night’s sleep.

This guide is designed to-

  • Look at all of the things that might affect your child’s ability to fall asleep
  • Suggest various strategies to support them in their quest for quality sleep

We will work together to explore the various solutions.

Technique 1 – Think about the noise levels

Stimulation such as noise can keep people of all ages awake when they should be drifting off to sleep. With children who have ADHD or autism, this can be particularly unsettling. The noise of a house or a neighborhood sound very different at night. This is often a key reason that stops a child from getting to sleep at the right time. It can also exacerbate underlying issues, such as separation issues, or feeling scared about going to sleep.

In terms of your home, you can make a difference by thinking about all of the sounds that may be present. Put off your bedtime activities until your child is already asleep. Or align your bedtime activities with your child.

If you go upstairs soon after they have gone to bed, they will be distracted by your unnecessary noise. Plan not just the night-time activities of your child but the rest of the house as well. This will allow you to control unnecessary noise at the time when it is most unsettling.

Providing a calming environment

You can find very good machines that produce white noise or play soothing sounds to help your child get to sleep. These provide consistent noise that is proven to help generate sleep. Noises such as the ocean waves or whale calls are very good at helping your child relax and empty their mind of the stresses of the day.

A restless mind is a major factor in stopping your child getting to sleep. So look into this as a way of countering the imagination of an overactive brain. Once they are asleep, you might want to use the machine yourself!

Technique 2 – Think about the light

Stimulation doesn’t always come from noise. The light that your child is subjected to will also have an impact on their ability to get to sleep. This isn’t always about creating an environment of complete darkness. But rather, it is about creating a room that your child is happy and comfortable in. This may mean that you have to get blackout blinds and cover the bottom of the doors to block out the light. But it could also mean that you decide to create a low light in the corner of the room so that your child is comfortable.

It might be a case of trial and error as you monitor their sleep patterns in different light conditions. Or they may have already told you about what helps them get to sleep. The key to all of this is consistency. Lights going on and off in the hallway outside of their room will interrupt their attempts to get to sleep and create a disturbing atmosphere. As with the noise levels discussed above, you will need to plan the night-time activities of the rest of the house as well.

Before going to bed

It can be easy to forget the light stimulation that occurs in the last half hour to an hour before bedtime. This is a crucial time that affects your child’s ability to get off to sleep. You should avoid unnecessary sources of light stimulation to allow the brain and eyes to rest in preparation for sleep. This includes-

  • Video games
  • Television
  • Mobile phones/tablets
  • Strong lights

Many of us walk into the bathroom and switch on a light just before we go to bed. This strong light (known as blue light) has the effect of waking the eyes and brain. It is the last thing that your child needs before going to bed. Look for a lower strength light bulb, or use another light if they need the bathroom for any reason just before bedtime.

Technique 3 – Think about food and drink

They say that ‘you are what you eat’, and when it comes to bedtime this is especially relevant. The food and drinks that your child consumes during the day are processed as they are trying to get to sleep. The different ingredients that they contain do different things to the body and the brain.

Sugar

High levels of sugar will lead to high levels of activity. Eating too much sugar is bad for children anyway. But too much of it close to bedtime is bound to cause problems when trying to go to sleep.

It is often the hidden sugar in everyday foods that your child can consume undetected. We all know about the sugars in sodas and candy. But there is added sugar in bread and cereals. Look at the sugar levels in what your child eats in the hours before bedtime. Some simple changes could help improve their sleep quality.

Caffeine

This is the ultimate stimulant and can keep a child awake for hours, even if they are tired. Caffeine, like sugar, can be found in many foods and drinks that you might not expect. These include-

  • Sodas
  • Chocolate milk
  • Chocolate
  • Some medications

Look at the caffeine content of the food and drink that your child normally consumes before bedtime. A little audit here can weed out the bad food and help your child get that much-needed shuteye.

Fat

As with sugar and caffeine, fat is something that we all need to limit in our diet. It isn’t good for us in large quantities and can lead to issues with weight, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. But as it takes longer to process in the digestive system than other foods, it can keep the body awake if eaten close to bedtime.

As a parent of a child with ADHD or autism, you have probably looked into the effect of caffeine and sugar on your child’s behavior and sleep patterns. But fat is an area that is often overlooked. Cut it out close to bedtime and you may see your child get to sleep sooner and have better quality sleep.

Serotonin

As well as foods that affect sleep, there are chemicals that have some part to play in the process. One is Serotonin, a “wonder chemical” that affects the brain and helps in areas such as-

  • Reducing anxiety
  • Increasing happiness
  • Bone health
  • Healing of wounds

And the level of serotonin can also have an impact on healthy sleep. It is found in nuts, cheese and red meat in the form of tryptophan. A high boost of serotonin before bedtime can cause sleep issues. But it still should be a part of a natural, healthy diet. Remember: serotonin is best avoided close to when your child needs to sleep.

Technique 4 – Make your child comfortable

In addition to the light and noise levels, the room should be made as comfortable as possible to help your child go to sleep. The environment that your child sleeps in has a major effect on how easily they drift off and stay asleep. The temperature of the room needs to be cool (not cold) so that your child can get off to sleep without feeling uncomfortable.

Bedtime should be structured so that it is as relaxing and stress-free as possible. The room that your child sleeps in is the most important part of this. Making the environment safe, familiar and calming will help.

If at all possible, you need to make your child’s room the place where they sleep – and little else. If it is filled with video games, a television set, a computer and toys then it doesn’t feel like a bedroom – it feels like a playroom. You want your child to associate that place with sleep and sleep alone. If you don’t have the space to move all of their stuff into another room, then try to have it hidden away at night-time. Clever use of curtains, drawers, or wardrobes will help to ensure it feels like a place to relax.

Get their input

For the room to feel comfortable for your child, they need to have an input. Ask them about what they want to have around them at bedtime. This might be a night light, familiar cuddly toys, or a favorite blanket. To give your child a room that feels comfortable and relaxing, they may want certain things removed or hidden away. Children can find the smallest details unnerving so find out what they like and dislike about their room. This will give you a sure-fire route to success.

Technique 5 – Establish a nightly routine

The world revolves around routines. Workers, students, public transport, and television schedules are some of the things that operate around a set routine. Think about how you can create a familiar routine that works for your child. The more established the routine, the better it will work. With my kids, I used to have the same things happen night after night-

  • Have their drink of milk
  • Have some playtime, but structured and sat down
  • Have a bath (added lavender of chamomile essential oil helps)
  • A massage
  • A short story in bed
  • Say goodnight

This always worked and the fact that it became routine helped too. My children knew that as soon as they had their milk it was the slow wind-down to bedtime – and sleep. Try it with your children and you will see over time that they will learn the signals that start their bedtime routine. Don’t be afraid to change things if you feel that parts of it are not working. For example, if washing their face causes a meltdown, move it farther away from bedtime so that it doesn’t interrupt the routine.

Create the calm

There will be certain things that you always turn to when you want to create or restore calm with your child. This might be-

  • Listening to music
  • Reading
  • Praying together
  • Drawing or painting

Whatever you use to create this calm, you should include it as part of your bedtime routine. Your child will react positively to calming influences that they are comfortable with. And the more relaxed your child is, the better chance you have of them going off to sleep.

As time goes on your child will start to take more responsibility for the routine tasks. The ultimate aim is that they can go through the routine themselves and take responsibility for a good night’s sleep. If they want to start taking ownership of parts of the routine then let them. It means that they are comfortable with it.

Technique 6 – Make all of this 7 days a week

So much of this guide is about routine and familiarity. A child with ADHD or autism will respond best if they know where they stand and can stick to a routine. In modern life, many people have a routine from Monday to Friday. This then goes out of the window at the weekend.

This ‘5 days on, 2 days off’ mentality will interrupt the sleep cycles and routine of your child. The best way to help your child get into a sleep pattern is to maintain it as best you can – every day of the year. To get good results for your child, you will need to send them to bed at the same time, seven days a week.

We have seen how important pattern and routine are in helping your child-

  • Get the right amount of sleep
  • Get off to sleep quickly
  • Improve their behavior

If this is interrupted just because it is the weekend, their body will struggle to establish a meaningful pattern. You need to help your child in this area as best as you can.

The morning matters too

This isn’t just about what time your child goes to bed. The time that they are woken up makes a difference in how tired they might be at bedtime. If they get up at 8 am every day of the week, they will need to be woken up at 8 am on a weekend. An extra hour of sleep is going to upset their routine and make them less tired for bedtime.

The routine also covers what time your child eats, the amount of exercise they get, and how much they use their brain. If they are getting a lot of mental and physical stimulation at school but none at home, then their body and mind will react differently at the weekend. Think about how structured your child’s day is and try to have certain things happening at the same time, wherever they are – at home or school.

Technique 7 – Exercise helps sleep

We know this from our own experience – if we exercise during the day then we feel more tired at the end of that day. The amount of movement we go through, both in our body and our mind, leaves us tired and ready to go to sleep. For example, an active day at work doing physical or mental activities, often feels stressful at the time. But it means that we drop off to sleep more quickly, even though it is sometimes too quickly as we sit on the sofa.

It is no surprise to think that this works in the same way for your child. If they have used their body and their brain to a high degree during the day, they will fall asleep much more quickly. You may find that if you keep a sleep diary that your child sleeps better when they have been at school that day – if indeed they have started education. This is because they will –

  • Use their brain to complete the work set by the teacher
  • Run around at playtime and exercise
  • Develop socially by interacting with others

All of these areas will make your child tired. The result is that they will go to sleep more quickly. And the closer this exercise is to bedtime, the more effective it can be. Think about the simple changes that you can make, such as:

  • Walking home from school instead of taking the car
  • Going out to play some sports with your child
  • Taking a walk before bedtime

It works the other way around too

It isn’t just that exercising the body and mind makes your child tired, it works the other way around too. Sleep helps your child to process all of the things that they have learned during the day. The brain needs time when your child is asleep to work through all that has been taught. This ensures it can order it and make sense of it. The body needs the rest to recover muscles and tissues that have been used during exercise. So sleep is at the center of a happy and healthy lifestyle.

Technique 8 – Contact has a soothing effect

As part of the nightly routine (see Technique 5 above), you can include some form of contact between you and your child. This can help them feel comfortable and soothed before bedtime. Leg massages in particular help children that have associated restless leg syndrome with their ADHD or autism. But massages in general are shown to alleviate stress and relax children.

Massaging your child will help them to de-stress and be in a relaxed state of mind ready for bedtime. The soothing motions of a massage are rhythmical and often make your child feel sleepy. If they are used in conjunction with a warm bath then the effect can make a massive difference when you are trying to get them off to sleep.

Any contact you have with your child should increase their comfort and relaxation. If they like to be hugged, doing this when they are in bed and ready to go to sleep will help them to relax into their surroundings. The easier you make it for your child to get to sleep, the better results you will have.

Teach yourself

Of course, it is expensive to hire someone to come to your home and give your child a massage every night, as well as a little impractical! The best solution is to teach yourself how to give a massage that works wonders for your child. There are different ways of doing this, including-

  • Watching videos on YouTube
  • Going to a local college and finding a massage class
  • Using the services of a local spa to teach you how to deliver a massage

Learning a new skill and using it to help your child is a wonderful feeling. It is inspiring to know that you can help your child to have a happier and healthier life by learning something new and making a simple change.

Technique 9 – Think about the timing of your child’s day

As you start to build a routine and make alterations through trial and error, you will find that certain activities too close to bedtime impact on sleep. Some tasks cause anxiety, stimulation, or upset. Having these too close to when you want your child to sleep will set back the whole process. This can include-

  • Doing any homework
  • Eating and drinking
  • Spending time on a games console
  • Watching TV

It isn’t just about limiting what your child does, it is about determining when a good time is to stop doing these things. TV and games consoles stimulate the eyes and the brain, so they shouldn’t be done close to the time you want your child to fall asleep. If they are thinking about their favorite game or TV show then they are not in a relaxed state of mind and ready to go to sleep.

Think about daily activities

If you start to break down the daily activities into two camps, you will see the importance of timing. Every daily activity can be classified as one of two things-

  • Stimulating
  • Relaxing

In terms of stimulating activities, these can make your child active, upset, or even make them anxious. Relaxing activities include anything that slows down their heart rate and makes them feel sleepier.

You want as many of the relaxing activities towards the end of the day as possible. And you want to move as many stimulating things to earlier in the day. Take the time to list all of the activities that happen on a normal day. Then move them into one list or another. Think about how you can move them around to help your child get off to sleep.

Technique 10 – Think about what they wear

The way that your child gets off to sleep can be affected by what they wear. This also links in with the temperature of your child’s sleeping environment. Assess what your child wears at bedtime to see if any of it impacts the way they sleep. Consider-

  • Clothes like cotton can help to keep your child cool
  • Tags on pajamas can be uncomfortable or itchy
  • Cold feet might keep your child awake so slip on a pair of socks
  • Flannel PJ’s and flannel sheets will stick together and retain heat, as well as make it more difficult to turn over during the night
  • Use a fan or AC unit to keep a room cool on hot nights

Many factors can influence the way that your child gets off to sleep. So as you start to explore all of the factors that might make a difference, you will be able to improve the sleeping conditions of your child. If you can make small changes in a few areas, then you can start to see a big overall change in your child’s quality of sleep.

Dress for relaxation

This all ties in to the fact that you want your child to relax. Pajamas with their favorite cartoon character may look great to them. But it may stimulate them into thinking back to their adventures. Something plainer and more relaxing may be more boring, but should also help your child to get off to sleep more easily.

Remember that loose-fitting clothing at bedtime is best so that your child has the opportunity to move around and have air running over their body. Something tight-fitting is far less comfortable to sleep in.

The eventual goal

Although it may seem like a faraway dream, the idea behind this is to get your child involved to the point where they can teach themselves to go off to sleep. It will take a lot of love, care and attention, but your child will get to a place where they know what works. They will also (hopefully) begin to follow their routine.

Helping your child to discover what helps them to sleep and what keeps them awake is all part of this process. This is a valuable life skill that many adults have never learned and suffer from for their entire life. To be able to help your child to work out for themselves what makes them tired is something they will thank you for in years to come.

Talk to your child as you explore the areas in this guide and discuss how it makes them feel. The more involved they are, the more comfortable they will be with the changes you are making. Nobody likes to have a change imposed on them, so make sure that they are part of the process of change. Explain-

  • What you are doing and why
  • How they feel about it
  • How they would manage it

The results will become better as your child takes a more active role in the process. And will improve further when they take control of it themselves.