Bedtime can be one of those nightly events which many parents love or hate, or both! It means that peace and quiet is soon ahead, but it also can mean that a huge struggle is about to proceed. Many children with autism have difficulties either transitioning to bed, falling asleep, or even staying asleep all night long. As all of these difficulties can increase the stress and tension in the home, below are some strategies to help reduce this potential stress. Keep in mind that no single suggestion will for all children and getting the right amount of sleep will allow your child to perform better academically, encourage the development of motor skills, and allow them to maintain a better mindset. Not to mention, it’ll help mom and dad get a fuller night of rest, too!
Probably the most important strategy is to create a consistent nightly routine around the same time each night. A routine helps signal the body that it’s time for bed and it can be soothing if there’s a lot of stimuli around. The routine can consist of a bath/shower, getting dressed for bed, playing a board game with the family, and/or reading a few books to quiet down. Whatever the routine, keep it consistent so the child learns what to expect each night.
To enhance your child’s understanding of the nightly routine, you may consider using a visual schedule so they understand what happens in the evenings. Take pictures of all events (e.g., dinner time at the table, bath time, reading books, and the child in bed), laminate the pictures and a piece of construction paper, and Velcro each picture either horizontally or vertically on the paper. When each event is completed, you can guide your child to take off the picture and point to the next event.
If your child is one that seems wound up, even when he is physically in bed, make sure that the activities in the nightly routine are calmer in nature. Choose books over exciting and loud family games. Dim the lights when reading books. Play soothing instrumental music (baby lullaby bedtime music works well!) throughout the bedtime routine. Focus on making sure the environment is quiet and calm.
If your child has a hard time falling asleep, or wakes up in the middle of the night, first consider if she takes naps during the day. You may want to reduce these naps so your child is more tired at night time. If your child wakes up in the middle of the night, be sure to keep the sleeping environment calm and do not allow him or her to play games or leave his or her room. This may take many sleepless nights by the parents but it will pay off in the end.
Parents, remember, the time you invest in putting a sleep routine now will save you many, many hours in the long run and you won’t have to do it forever. Once the patterns are established, you will be able to reclaim a large part of your evening for yourselves.