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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Helping Your Child With Autism Get a Good Night's Sleep

What kind of effects do sleep problems have?

Not getting a good night's sleep can have a serious impact on a child's life and overall health. Research has shown that, in children with autism, there is a connection between lack of sleep and the following characteristics:

  • Aggression
  • Depression
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increased behavioral problems
  • Irritability
  • Poor learning and cognitive performance

If your child isn't sleeping, there's a good chance you aren't, either. One study showed that the parents of autistic children sleep less, have poorer sleep quality, and wake up earlier than parents of non-autistic children.

How do I know whether my child has a sleep disorder?

Every child needs a slightly different amount of sleep. In general, these are the amounts of sleep children require, by age:

  • Ages 1-3: 12-14 hours of sleep per day
  • Ages 3-6: 10-12 hours of sleep per day
  • Ages 7-12: 10-11 hours of sleep per day

If your child regularly has difficulty falling asleep or wakes up repeatedly throughout the night, it might be a sign of a sleep problem. To know for sure, make an appointment with your child's pediatrician. The doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist or an ear, nose and throat doctor.

It can help to keep a sleep diary for a week to track how much and when your child is sleeping. You may include any snoring, changes in breathing patterns, or difficulty breathing. You can share this diary with your child's doctor and any specialist involved in treatment.

How can I help my child sleep better?

Sleep medications should only be used with children as a last resort . There are a number of lifestyle changes and natural sleep aids that can improve sleep time and quality for kids with autism:

  • Avoid giving your child stimulants such as caffeine and sugar before bed.
  • Establish a nighttime routine: give your child a bath, read a story, and put him or her to bed at the same time every night.
  • Help your child relax before bed by reading a book, giving a gentle back massage, or turning on soft music.
  • Shut down television, video games, and other stimulating activities at least an hour before bedtime.
  • To prevent sensory distractions during the night, put heavy curtains on your child's windows to block out the light, install thick carpeting, and make sure the door doesn't creak.
  • Ask your pediatrician about giving your child melatonin just before bedtime. This dietary supplement is often used as a sleep aid to help people get over jet lag. It may help normalize sleep-wake cycles in autistic children who have sleeping issues, and research done so far finds that it's safe and effective.
  • Talk to a sleep psychologist about bright-light therapy. Exposing the child to periods of bright light in the morning may help regulate the body's release of melatonin.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 19, 2015
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