5 JUNE 2019

The Benefits of Sleep

by Petra Ecclestone

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The benefits of sleep and how to ensure that you and your child get proper rest!

No one can function properly without getting a full night’s sleep. Did you know that sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise for your child’s health and development? So, as a parent of a child with autism, how can you make sure that everyone gets enough rest?
Generally, babies should sleep for 14-16 hours a day, toddlers should sleep between 10-13 hours and children of school age need around 10-12 hours.
When kids don’t get enough sleep, they can become irritable or hyperactive. Sleep is essential for brain development and helps children store memories of what they have learned throughout the day.
Unfortunately, many children with autism are just not getting enough.

Why do children with autism have sleep difficulties?

Research has shown that around 80% of children with autism find it hard to fall and stay asleep. Sleep issues in children with autism may be related to a difference in levels of melatonin or the use of medications that might keep them awake.
But not getting enough sleep can intensify typical symptoms of autism such as poor social skills or repetitive behaviours. If you’re a parent struggling to make sure that everyone gets proper shut-eye, we have some tips to get everyone relaxed and ready for bed.

9 simple suggestions:

1. Reduce screen time, for the whole family!
One of the key ways to help switch off a child’s brain is to reduce screen time before bed. TVs, phones and tablets give off artificial blue light and exposure to this light in the two hours before bed can stop anyone from getting a full night’s rest.
This is true for adults and children alike, so setting a family curfew on these screens might be a good idea for everyone. Enforcing the rule on the whole family will also ensure that your child does not feel left out!

2. Identify signs of sleepiness
Knowing when a child with autism is getting sleepy is really important in helping them settle for the night. A lot of children can become clumsy, clingy and cry when they’re tired, but your child may show different signs.
It’s essential to recognise your child’s cues so that you can help them wind down with some calming activities. If it’s not all that obvious, you could keep a diary noting your child’s behaviour at different times of the day – maybe that daily tantrum or meltdown after school or dinner is due to tiredness after all!

3. Quiet, calming activities before bedtime
In the two hours before bed, instead of any screen, your family could spend some calm time together to wind down from the day.
Every child is different but a non-exciting family game, reading session or colouring in may help everyone relax. A gentle stroll may also help your child to calm down, as well as tiring them out physically.

4. Stories and sounds
Most children enjoy a bedtime story. Calming books with rhymes are best to help children feel sleepy, and stories can also be an excellent way to explain to children why sleep is important.
Relaxing music, white noise or an audio book may also help children sleep as it could help mask any outside noise.

5. Routine
A good bedtime routine can be very relaxing for children and parents alike. Children with autism generally do very well with structure and so getting ready for bed should be no different.
Once screen time is off, a bath, some warm milk or favourite drink with a story and cuddle can help your child prepare for sleep. Whatever works for your child, if they can expect the same routine every night, they should come to enjoy the process.

6. Room environment
Everyone has a personal preference with sleeping environments and children are no different. Does your child prefer being in total darkness to sleep, or do they need a nightlight? How cool or warm do they like the room? Do they need silence to sleep, or some sort of sound?
You may need to make some adjustments to your child’s room to help them get the best sleep. Blackout curtains can ensure complete darkness and moving the bed to a wall with no space attached to it can ensure quietness. You may need to open a window, use a fan or air conditioner or make sure that the central heating is on or that they have plenty of warm blankets.

7. Soothing sensory issues
A lot of children with autism have sensory issues. Making sure that sheets are not washed in strong smelling detergent and are not too scratchy might help your child get rest.
Another option to help children feel comforted enough to sleep is a weighted blanket. Weighted blankets are blankets filled with beans or plastic pellets which provide firm, deep pressure stimulation. Some people think that they can help with anxiety and stress and help people to stay asleep at night, and some children with autism respond really well to them.

8. Doctor’s advice
If you feel like you’ve tried everything you can to help your child sleep and nothing is working well enough, you should always ask your doctor’s advice. They may be able to prescribe something such as melatonin, help you to get blue light glasses or suggest a method that you’ve not thought or read about yet.
This tip might be last in this list, but don’t feel like it has to be the last resort! Your doctor should know your child and what is best and safe for them.

9. Looking after yourself
It’s not just children who suffer when they don’t get enough sleep. It can be both frustrating and exhausting for parents too!

Remember that you are not alone, and don’t feel too guilty about feeling the way that you do. Share night-time duties if you have the option and talk any frustrations through with someone that you trust, be that a partner, friend, an online group for parents of autistic children or a counsellor.

Does your child have problems sleeping? How do you deal with it? Do you have any tips that you would recommend to other parents? Tweet us at @PetraEFdtn to let us know.

The Author

Petra Ecclestone is a Philanthropist and mother of three. She is founder and Director of the Petra Ecclestone Foundation, providing services and support for young children with suspected or diagnosed autism and their families.

Copyright © 2021 The Brightest Star. Content curated by Petra Ecclestone