Helping Children with Autism & ADHD Fall Asleep
The complete guide to helping your child fall asleep naturally
Problems with sleeping are common for children who have ADHD and autism. If you are the parent of a child with ADHD or autism then you will know how a good night’s sleep can make a huge difference to how your child is able to cope the next day. When your child did not get all the sleep they needed, you may find your child suffers –
- Wanting to fall asleep during the day
- Being unable to pay full attention at school
- Heightening 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 so for children. So getting the full sleep that is required for their age is an essential part of helping your child manage their condition, get on 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 then 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 they are awake. There are many common causes that are present in children with autism and children with ADHD so it can really benefit 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 sleep and put strategies into place to support them in their quest for the type of quality sleep that will help them. The key to the whole pattern seems to be getting them off to sleep. We will work together to explore the solutions that will deliver quality sleep.
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 then this can be particularly unsettling. The noise of a house or a neighborhood sound very different at night and can stop a child from getting to sleep. Noise levels can have a big effect on the time that your child goes to sleep. Noise can exacerbate underlying issues such as separation issues or feeling scared about going to sleep. Anything unsettling at this time of day
In terms of your own home you can make a difference by thinking about all of the sounds that may be present. Put off your own 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 to start getting ready yourself then they will be distracted by the noise levels that this activity creates. Plan not just the nighttime 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. This can provide a consistent noise that is proven to help generate sleep in studies. Noises such as the ocean waves or whale calls are very good at helping your child to empty their mind of all the stresses of the day and start to relax.
An overactive mind is a major factor is stopping your child get to sleep in the first place so look into this as a way of countering the imagination and the brain being overactive. Once they are asleep then you might want to use the machine to help your own sleep!
Technique 2 – Think about the light
Stimulation doesn’t always come from noise, as the light that your child is subjected to will also have an effect on their ability to get to sleep. Now this isn’t always about creating an environment of complete darkness. 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 may also mean that you could create a low light in the corner of the room so that you 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 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 nighttime activities of the rest of the house so they don’t disturb the precious sleep that your child needs.
Before going to bed
It can be easy to forget the light stimulation that occurs in the last half hour to hour before bedtime. This is a crucial time that affects a child’s ability to get off to sleep. You should avoid sources of light stimulation in this time to allow the brain and eyes to rest in preparation for sleep. This includes-
- Video games
- Strong lights
Many of us walk into the bathroom and switch on a light just before we go to bed. This strong light (know as blue light) has the effect of waking the eyes and brain. It is the last thing 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 most relevant. The food and drink that your child consumes during the day is processed as they are trying to get to sleep. The different ingredients that they contain do different things to the body and the brain.
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 sugars 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 and see if some simple changes here help them to get to sleep.
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 a number of foods and drinks that you might not expect. These include-
- Chocolate milk
- 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.
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 c 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.
As well as foods that affect sleep, there are chemicals that have some part to play in the process. Serotonin is a wonder chemical that affects the brain and helps in area such as-
- Reducing anxiety
- Increasing happiness
- Bone health
- Healing of wounds
And serotonin levels can also have an impact on healthy sleep. It is found in nuts, cheese and red meat in the form of tryptophan and a high boost of serotonin before bedtime can cause sleep issues. It should be a part of a natural healthy diet but 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 and the room that your child sleeps in is the most important part of this. Making the environment safe, familiar and calming will really 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 play room. 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, certain familiar cuddly toys or a favorite blanket. To give your child a room that feels comfortable and relaxing then 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 and you will be on the road 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 play time, 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 if it is not working. For example, if washing their face causes a meltdown or a shouting match then move it farther away from bedtime so that it doesn’t interrupt the routine you have created.
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 or praying together. Whatever you use to create this calm then you should include it as part of your bedtime routine. Your child will react positively to the calming influences that they are already comfortable with so you can create that aura of calm around bedtime. The more relaxed your child is then the better chance you have of them going off to sleep.
As time goes on your child will start to take more responsibility over the routine tasks. The ultimate aim of this is that they are able to 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 are able to stick to a routine. In modern life many people have a routine from Monday to Friday and then this 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 the best results for your child you will need to get them to bed at the same time seven day 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 and improving their behavior. If this is interrupted just because it is the weekend then their body will struggle to establish a meaningful pattern. You need to help your child in this area.
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 to how tired they might be at bedtime. If they get up at 8am every day of the week then they will need to be woken up at 8am on a weekend. An extra hour asleep is going to upset their routine and give them more energy that they may still have stored up when you go to put them to bed at the end of the day.
The routine 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 at 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. An active day at work, for example, where we have been lifting and carrying as well as making decisions and solving problems often feels stressful at the time. But it means that we drop off to sleep quickly, even though it is sometimes too quickly as we sit on the sofa.
It is no surprise to think that this works in exactly the same way for your child. If they have used their body and their brain to a high degree during the day then 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, and the result is that they will go to sleep more quickly. The closer this exercise is to bedtime then 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 or taking a walk before bedtime.
It works the other way round 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 so 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. 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 to help them feel comfortable and be 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 their bedtime and some quality sleep. 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 your little one to sleep.
Any contact you have with your child should increase their comfort and relaxation. If they like to be hugged then 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 then the better results you will have.
Of course it would work out really 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 You Tube of how to learn massage
- 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 that will work for your child
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 will affect how easy your child finds it to go to sleep. Some tasks cause anxiety, stimulation or upset and 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 then you will see what I mean. Every daily activity can be classified as one of two things-
In terms of stimulation I mean that it could make them active, upset them or even make them anxious. Relaxing activities will include anything that slows down their heart rate and makes them feel more comfortable and closer to sleep.
It goes without saying that you want as many of the relaxing activities towards the end of the day as possible and to move as many of the stimulating things to earlier in the day as you can. Take the time to list all of the activities that happen on a normal and day and 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 goes with the temperature that you keep the room to make a comfortable sleeping environment. Assess what your child wears at bedtime to see if any of it might have a negative impact on the way they get to 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 making it more difficult to turn over during the night
Use a fan or AC unit to keep a room cool on hot nights
There are many factors that 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 then you will be able to improve the sleeping conditions of your child. If you are able to 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 links back 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 you 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 all of 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 and they follow their own 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 work out for themselves what makes them tired and gives them a restful night’s sleep 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 all makes them feel. The more involved they are then 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. Ask how they feel about it. Ask them how they would manage it. The results that you get will become better as your child takes an active role in the process – and then takes control of it when they are happy to.