Children with developmental disabilities and autism are at greater risk of sleep problems (40-80% in comparison to 20% of children without developmental disabilities). Problems can include all aspects of the sleep process, including trouble falling asleep when needed, waking frequently throughout the night, and waking early in the morning hours. Given what we know about how sleep impacts our attention, emotional regulation, and socialization, it is that much more imperative that we help our children with developmental disabilities be well rested.
Why do children with developmental disabilities have more problems with sleep?
- Biological: Children with developmental disabilities show higher rates of circadian rhythm disturbance and lowered levels of melatonin.
- Social: children with developmental disabilities struggle with interpreting social cues, including those cues that indicate inform bedtime.
- Sensory: children with developmental disabilities exhibit disturbances in sensory processing. Because of this, minor bodily complaints, noise, light, and tactile input can disrupt a good night’s sleep.
If your child with autism or other developmental disabilities struggles to sleep well, the following strategies can help:
- Keep a sleep diary to recognize patterns in your child’s sleep. You may discover a precipitating cause or consistent trend causing the difficulties.
- Create a visual schedule of the bedtime routine. Knowing the routine and consistently following it can help the child prepare for bedtime.
- Have the child engage in calming activities one hour prior to bedtime. Screen time is prohibited due to its stimulating effects and interference with melatonin production.
- Provide the necessary sensory input that your child needs. They may require a weighted blanket for deep pressure, sound machine to drown out extraneous noises, or dim lights prior to bedtime to cue the child that sleep is approaching.
- Melatonin supplement use has been shown to be helpful in children with developmental disabilities but should always be discussed with your pediatrician and approved by them before beginning any regimen.
Read more about sleep disorders in children here.
Need help with getting your child with autism to sleep? Contact one of our sleep expert specialists.