Sleep Problems and Autism

Experts at the Pediatric Sleep Center Provide Sleep Assessment and Treatment for Children with Autism

Our highly-trained experts at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital Pediatric Sleep Center know that healthy sleep is vital for every child's optimal mental, emotional and physical development. However, children with pediatric disorders also suffer with sleep disorders. For instance, many children with autism have difficulty with sleep that often creates added stress for the child and the family.

Assessing the Child's Sleep Habits

To help a child with autism get quality sleep, it is important to assess sleep problems, including:

  • Bedwetting at night
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Early morning waking
  • Gasping for breath while sleeping
  • Snoring
  • Trouble falling asleep

If the child with autism has one or more of these sleep problems, ask the primary care provider (PCP) for further evaluation and treatment from a sleep specialist at University Hospitals Pediatric Sleep Center. Our pediatric sleep specialists are board-certified and highly skilled in helping children with autism that have problems during sleep.

Tips for Quality Sleep

Usually school-age children need about 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night. But many children with autism spectrum disorder seem to need less sleep. This is important information for parents as putting a child with autism to bed too early may make it harder to fall asleep at night. Additionally, if a child takes more than an hour to fall asleep, think about putting off bedtime by 30 minutes to 1 hour to try to help with sleep. Here are more simple sleep tips for children with autism:

  • Create a safe, quiet sleep setting
  • The bedroom should be comfortable – not too hot, not too cold
  • If the room is too dark, consider adding a dim light to the bedroom
  • Use blackout shades or heavier curtains to block light coming from the street
  • Keep the bedroom quiet; turn off the TV, computer, and cell phone before going to bed
  • Use a white noise machine to provide low, consistent background noise
  • Make sure pajamas feel comfortable — not too tight or too loose
  • Have an established bedtime routine that begins 15 to 30 minutes before going to bed. During this time, make sure the activities are soothing and calming with no loud noise or jumping around.
  • A light carbohydrate snack (cheese and crackers, fruit and nut butter or cereal and milk) may help the child fall asleep more easily.
  • Make a to-do list with pictures or words to remind each night of the bedtime routine
  • Children with autism should keep a regular mealtime schedule, eating breakfast at the same time on weekdays and weekends.
  • Teach a child to fall asleep alone. Parents may sit on the side of the bed and then sit in a chair by the bed. Each night push it farther away from the bed until the child is out of visual contact with the parent.
  • Try a bedtime pass. This is a card a child can give to the parent for a special hug or drink of water. They may use the pass once during the night.
  • Make sure a child gets plenty of physical activity each day; avoid stimulating exercise close to bedtime as it will make it harder to fall asleep

Collaboration with UH Experts

Because children with autism have different health issues, the Pediatric Sleep Center uses a multidisciplinary approach to make a diagnosis and treat the sleep disorder. We work closely with the following board-certified specialists to diagnose and treat a child’s sleep disorder, including:

  • Behavioral pediatricians
  • Craniofacial specialists
  • Gastroenterologists
  • Neonatologists
  • Nephrologists
  • Neurologists
  • Otolaryngologists (ENT)
  • Psychiatrists
  • Pulmonologists

Additionally, we work with University Hospitals dentists and physicians to help treat sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.

Talk openly with a child’s doctor about sleep habits with autism. If a child snores or has other signs of a sleep disorder, find out if a sleep specialist might assess the child using a sleep study or polysomnogram.

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