If you are like many parents we support, you made every attempt at sleep training when your child was younger. And maybe it even worked for a time.
Yet, fast forward a few years, and lying with your child as they fall asleep every night and waking to them crawling into your bed has become the norm.
The truth is around half of children with autism struggle with sleeping in some capacity, as compared to one-fourth of neurotypical children. What does that tell us? The meltdowns you experienced any time you attempted to leave them alone in their room are extremely common.
The problem is children need a sufficient amount of sleep for optimal brain development, improved moods and behaviors, and physical and mental health. For that reason, this month we are sharing some tips on how to help your child with autism become a more independent sleeper.
The "Why" Behind Autism and Independent Sleep
For those children who require more sensory input, a parent lying with them allows them to know where their own body is in space, encouraging them to relax. They automatically feel more safe and secure.
For children who are more sensitive to stimulation, any lights, noises, or even things they see in the room can be a sleep disruption. A parent’s presence provides a calm relief to the child.
Make the Bedroom a Sleep Environment
One of the golden rules for sleep is to create an environment intended solely for rest. This matters even more for children on the autism spectrum who tend to be more sensitive to sensory stimuli. That means the bed should only be used for sleeping, rather than a place for eating snacks or watching TV.
Creating a dark or dim space can help rid the room of distractions. Some parents find blackout curtains helpful, while others opt for a bed-tent or canopy. Small blinking lights on toys or even monitors may need to be removed from the space or turned to the wall.
If your child is sensitive to noise, adding carpeting to the space and heavy furniture against the walls can help reduce outside sound.
Stick to a Routine
As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, you know just how integral routine can be to your day-to-day life. It also plays a large role in creating that ideal sleep environment.
A consistent bedtime routine that is calm and focused on connection can help the child wind down before even hitting the pillow. Be as present as possible at this time to provide a space for your child to share any worries or simply the day’s events. Bedtime stories are excellent ways to allow for this time.
Take Sensory Input into Account
For children who require additional sensory input, add things into the bed that could satisfy that need. A body pillow or surrounding them with stuffed animals can give them the feedback they need to feel more secure. Some parents have had success with warmed towels, weighted blankets, or flannel blankets and pillowcases. The goal is to give the child the sensory input normally received from the presence of a parent through these objects.
Limit Screens Before Bedtime
Some children are particularly sensitive to sensory input from screens. As a result, the stimuli may make bedtime more of a challenge. Stopping any screen time at least an hour prior to bedtime can help the brain activity settle and give your child the time to wind down that their body craves.
Utilize Rewards When Necessary
If your child responds well to rewards or reinforcers, put a reward system into place for nights they sleep independently. For each night where the child meets the requirements, they can earn a special activity, small toy, or snack in the morning.
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