Up All Night

Beyond just being a cute TV show about new parents, the phrase “Up All Night” can also describe the lives of many parents raising children with Autism. Sleep issues are a common concern I hear from families, and they usually have been dealing with significant sleep issues for years.

Sleep issues could include getting the child to sleep in their own bed, getting them to fall asleep, getting them to stay asleep, or night roaming. These sleep issues can range from annoying to pretty serious. I also know of some parents who take turns sleeping in shifts so that someone is always awake.

For a stressed-out family dealing with behavioral, medical, educational, and social issues, a consistent lack of sleep makes a bad situation worse. I know of households where the parents regularly get 2-4 hours of sleep per night, because their child with Autism may not go to bed until 1am. Or the child goes to bed at 8pm, but is wide awake at 11pm and jumping off of furniture. A parent once made a comment to me that she felt like she had a perpetual infant, because her 7 year old son only slept 2-3 hours a night.

Everyone deserves a good night’s sleep. That includes you, and that includes your child. Many severe behavioral problems in children can be confounded by a lack of sufficient sleep. If you are dealing with significant sleep issues, know that you are not alone. This is a common issue within the Autism community. Here are a few general tips before tackling sleep problems:

  • As with any behavioral intervention, before you begin tackling this problem be fully prepared for a difficult process. Especially if you have an older child (over 6), these sleep issues have likely been present for quite some time. They won’t be fixed overnight.
  • Be a wary consumer when dealing with homeopathic methods such as Epsom salt baths, brushing therapy, and melatonin to induce sleep. These methods are not always empirically supported, so use them at your own risk and take careful data so you know whether an intervention is effective or not.
  • Both parents/caregivers need to be on board before correcting sleep problems. If Dad decides to start teaching the little one to sleep in her own bed, it is imperative that Mom is also on board. To have one parent enforcing rules and one parent allowing leeway will confuse the child and could make the behavior worse.
  • Do not begin addressing sleep issues during times of upheaval such as a family move, right before the start of a new school year, or if the child is ill.
  • Like many behavioral interventions, you may see sleep issues worsen before they improve. If this happens it is important you do not back off or stop the intervention. Doing so will likely make the behaviors more persistent and harder to change.
  • Children need to learn to go to sleep on their own. If you have a young child it is fine to sing and cuddle them until they fall asleep. However, at some point you need to begin removing yourself from the bedtime routine so the child can learn to fall asleep without you. When children climb into their parent’s bed in the middle of the night, wander around the house at 4am, or have difficulty calming down enough to fall asleep, it is because they haven’t learned the skill of going to sleep on their own. The child wakes up in the middle of the night and goes looking for Mom or Dad because they need their “prop” to go back to sleep.
  •  If your child is preschool age you also need to think about napping at school. In most preschools, children are expected to lay down at a specific time everyday and fall asleep within a few minutes. Don’t let your child be at a disadvantage in the classroom because they are used to having a 45 minute bedtime routine filled with songs, stories, hugs, and cuddles. Most preschool classrooms will not accommodate the lengthy bedtime routines that your child may require.

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