Your child needs lots of sleep to grow, learn and develop to his maximum potential. School-age children need 10-12 hours of sleep a day. Toddlers need even more sleep – from 11-14 hours a day.
Effects of sleep deprivation
Remember how you felt the last time you didn’t get enough sleep. The next day it’s hard to concentrate, you aren’t as motivated, you don’t feel as positive. Our kids feel the same way when they don’t get the sleep they need.
And there are long-term effects as well to being sleep-deprived. Not getting enough sleep has been linked to:
- Heart disease
- Shorter life span
I’m not saying these things to scare you. I just want to motivate you to do what you can to make sure your child gets the sleep he needs.
As you may already know, autistic kids have unique sleep challenges. It’s estimated that 44-86% of children with autism have problems sleeping compared to 10-16% of the normal population. It tends to take these children longer to fall asleep. And they spend less time in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep than other kiddos.
Not getting enough sleep can magnify the characteristics of autism such as repetitive behaviors and difficulty making friends. A study in 2009 found that autistic children with sleep difficulties were more hyperactive and easily distracted than other autistic children who slept well.
So if your child has trouble sleeping, here are some things that can help.
7 Expert Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep
1. Serve sleep-promoting foods for dinner. The nutrients tryptophan, magnesium, calcium, and B6 help us sleep. So it can help to feed your child these foods at dinner to improve their quality of sleep.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that converts to serotonin and then melatonin (the sleep hormone). You can find tryptophan in:
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Poultry (turkey, chicken)
- Seafood (shrimp, salmon, halibut, tuna, sardines, cod)
- Nuts and seeds (flax, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, cashews, peanuts, almonds, walnuts)
- Legumes (kidney beans, lima beans, black beans split peas, chickpeas)
- Fruits (apples, bananas, peaches, avocado)
- Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, onions, seaweed)
- Grains (wheat, rice, barley, corn, oats)
Many people are deficient in magnesium, the mineral that helps muscles relax. Using topical magnesium can be a great way to correct a deficiency as well. Great food sources of magnesium are:
- Dark leafy greens (baby spinach, kale, collard greens)
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, cashews, pine nuts, flaxseed, pecans)
- Wheat germ
- Fish (salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel)
Calcium, which works together with magnesium, helps make melatonin. Diets rich in calcium have been shown to help people sleep. Foods high in calcium are:
- Dark leafy greens
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Vegetables (green snap peas, okra, broccoli)
Vitamin B6 also helps convert tryptophan into melatonin. Studies have linked B6 deficiency to poor sleep as well as depression and mood disorders. You can get B6 from:
- Nuts and seeds (sunflower seeds, pistachios, flaxseed)
- Fish (tuna, salmon, halibut)
- Meat (chicken, tuna, lean pork, lean beef)
- Dried Prunes
Don’t worry about feeding your kids all these foods every night for dinner! As long as you serve different kinds of meat and fish, dairy products, nuts and seeds and a variety of vegetables, your kids will get all the sleep-promoting nutrients they need.
2. Serve dinner a few hours before bed. Eating a large meal too close to bed can make it harder to sleep. You body won’t be able to digest food as well while you’re sleeping so it wants to stay awake to get the work of digestion done.
If your child is hungry before bed, a small snack of about 100 calories is fine. Make sure it has some protein, healthy fats and complex carbs so it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels and so it will keep him full all night. Great bedtime snacks are celery with almond butter or avocado on toast.
3. I recommend a bedtime routine for all babies and kids (and adults!). But a routine is especially important for kids on the autism spectrum. The routine helps cue the brain that sleep is coming. I suggest winding down an hour before bedtime and start the routine about 30 minutes before it’s time to turn out the lights.
4. No screens before bed. I suggest at least an hour, but ideally two hours, before bed if your child has a hard time settling down. The blue light from screens suppresses the production of melatonin. Since many autistic children don’t produce enough melatonin, it’s even more important for them to not use screens (TVs, ipads, computers, cell phones) before bed.
Most of the routine should be done in their bedroom with the lights dim. Here’s an example of a great bedtime routine:
Using a visual bedtime routine chart can help kids with special needs stick to the routine. You can take photos of your child for the chart so they see themselves doing the actions.
If your child wants a light on in his room to go to sleep, use a dim one. Also, make sure the light is red and not green or blue.
5. Use calming techniques if your child is anxious or wound-up. Meditation CD’s can be helpful as well as breathing exercises and progressive relaxation.
6. Having a consistent bedtime and wake up time helps their bodies know when it’s time to go to sleep. A bedtime between 7 and 8pm ensures that they have the chance to get the 10-12 hours of sleep they need every night. Especially since many kids wake up early or have to get up early to get ready for school.
7. Make your child’s room a sleep sanctuary. A bedroom that is quiet, calm, simple, dark, and cool is the best environment for sleep.
You want your child’s room to be quiet. But not so quiet that you feel like you’re tiptoeing around. White noise can help drown out louder noises that could wake your child.
It’s great to have lots of rowdy fun in your child’s bedroom during the day. But starting about an hour before bedtime, your child’s bedroom should be calm and relaxing. This calm environment makes sure that he doesn’t get overstimulated before bed.
Keep the bedroom neat and clean with minimal decorations. Too much stimulation from too many pictures and toys can be overstimulating and distracting for your child which will make it harder for him to sleep.
A dark room is key to a good night’s sleep. Blackout blinds or curtains keep the light out. I personally like Blackoutez window coverings. They’re easy to put up and they block out 100% of the light. But if you’re on a budget or in a pinch, you can always use garbage bags instead.
Children (and adults, too) tend to sleep better when it’s cool. Our body temperature naturally drops right before bedtime to help us sleep. So a room temperature of 65-70 degrees is ideal.
“A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.” -Irish proverb
I hope these tips help your kiddo get the sleep he needs to be his best every day! But if you’re struggling with your child’s sleep, get in touch.
The most common sleep challenges I see in toddlers and children are needing a parent to be in the room or lie with them while they fall asleep. That can leave parents resentful and frustrated that they have to spend their evenings waiting for their child to fall asleep. When they could be cleaning up, spending time with each other, or relaxing. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Your child can learn to how to develop his own self-soothing strategy so he can fall asleep on his own.
I’m passionate about helping kids get the sleep they need. If your child doesn’t fall asleep independently, I create customized plans with follow-up support to improve your child’s sleep. You can find out more at www.happylittlecamperjh.com.
Author Bio:Martha’s first passion was nutrition but she became fascinated with sleep when her son, Parker, was a terrible sleeper as an infant. She hired a sleep consultant and her 3-month old went from waking up every 1-2 hours all night long to waking up once a night within 4 nights. Excited about how good she felt getting a good night’s sleep again and how much happier her baby was, she trained with Dana Obleman to become a certified Sleep Sense consultant so she could help other families get the sleep they so desperately need. She lives with her husband and son in Jackson Hole, WY where she enjoys mountain biking, hiking, snowboarding, and yoga and adventuring with her family.