Common problems with children’s sleep include inconsistent sleep routines, difficulty falling asleep, nighttime and early morning awakening and restlessness. Lack of sleep and poor sleep may lead to higher levels of aggression, depression and hyperactivity. Learning and cognitive performances may be negatively affected. Here are a number of lifestyle interventions and sleep aids that may help.

1. Establish a routine

Children on the autism spectrum and very young children respond well to routines because they allow them to feel safe and in control.

  • Create a calming and predictable routine that you can use every day and anywhere
  • Present the routine in a visual schedule

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2. Provide a calming and comfortable environment in the bedroom

  • Switch off the tv, computer, iPad and other electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime
  • Remove distractions, such as stimulating toys and electronic devices
  • Block out light with dark curtains
  • Reduce noise with thick carpet or close the doors

3. Consider changes to food and drink

  • Reduce stimulant consumption, such as caffeine and sugar, before bedtime.

4. Explain sleep

Some children may have difficulty understanding sleep. Social stories may be used to explain when and where we sleep, what is a dream etc. Here is an example of a social story by Carol Gray, taken from My social stories book, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002.

“What does it mean when people say, “Time to go to bed”?

All people sleep. Most people sleep on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They wake up each morning. I sleep in a bed. Usually Mom or Dad says, “Time to go to bed.” This means it is time to get into bed and go to sleep.”

5. Keep a sleep diary

A sleep diary helps track your child’s sleep, allowing you to see habits and trends. If you implement routines, behavioural or dietary changes, then a sleep diary may allow you to see if the intervention is working or not. Focus on what works and try to tackle the things that got in the way of a good sleep.

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 6. Medication

Sleep medication should only be used with children as a last resort . Melatonin, a dietary supplement, may help normalise sleep-wake cycles.

None of these suggestions can be guaranteed to work by themselves. You may find that a combination of them proves most effective.