Sleep Tips for Your Child with Autism or ADHD

A large majority of children with ASD and ADHD have trouble sleeping [1, 2]. Autism Speaks reports that “over half of children with autism – and possibly as many as four in five – have one or more chronic sleep problems” [3]. These may include difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night, sleeping only a few hours per night, or a combination of the three.  Studies show that losing sleep can cause poor daytime behaviors, increase core symptoms of ASD and ADHD [2], cause adverse effects on social interaction and academic achievement, as well as impact the well-being of the care-givers [1].

While the root cause of sleep issues in Autism are not always easy to uncover, a few common issues include Sensory Processing Disorder (sensitivity to touch seems to have the strongest correlation) [4] and gastrointestinal (GI) issues. Per one study, children with ASD and GI symptoms have been found to have a higher prevalence of sleep disturbances compared with typically developing peers who do not have GI symptoms [5].

A nighttime routine is an important part of sleep health, and implementing a consistent nightly schedule can be very helpful in regulating sleep and the circadian rhythm. It’s important to note, if your child’s sleeping issues do stem from GI issues, it’s important to solve these issues before you can make any major impact on their sleep. Good starting points would be checking for yeast overgrowth or dysbiosis with GI-MAP, evaluating food sensitivities with the Mediator Release Test, or checking for metabolic abnormalities with the Organic Acids Test. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies (such as Vitamin D [6]) can also play a role in sleep quality (you can get these checked with SpectraCell).

Below you’ll find 10 ideas to naturally help regulate sleep for your child with sleeping issues, and help you get some sleep as well!


1. Set a bedtime regimen

Establishing a nightly routine in which your child is prepared for bed will help them wind down and get ready for sleep. Many studies show that implementing a routine will help prepare the child mentally for bedtime and also get their circadian rhythm regimented. Below is an example schedule to help you get an idea of a nighttime regimen:

5:30pm: eat dinner as a family

6:30pm: finish up all homework

7:00pm all screens (iPad, phone, tablet, etc) are turned off and lights are dimmed

7:15pm: bath with salts

7:45pm: pajamas, brush teeth, go potty

8:00pm: get in bed, story time, and other actions that help your child wind down

8:30pm: lights out


2. Dim lights and turn off screens

Simply dimming the lights to half-brightness can help tell the brain it’s time to go to bed. Harsh lights and bright screens tell the brain to waken and wire up. By setting a time each night to turn off screens and turn down the lights, you are preparing their brain to shut down and prepare to go to sleep. If your child is on a tablet or computer for more than 30 minutes/day, I would recommend trying glasses that block blue light.


3. Take a nightly Epsom Salt Bath

Baths with salts and essential oils can be a very calming way to end the day. For many kids, this really preps their body for sleep and helps calm sensory overload from the day. It also gives the mind a rest from looking at a screen all day. You can buy organic Epsom salts from Amazon and have your child soak for 20-30 minutes. You can also put a few drops of calming essential oils in the bath if you can’t find a specific scent or can only find unscented bath salts.

TIP: Epsom salts absorb best when combined with baking soda. Use ½ cup baking soda for 2 cups of Epsom salt. Aluminum-free baking soda is best.


4. Use essential oils

Aromatherapy can be very effective in relaxing the body and calming the brain. Most oils can be diffused in the air, diluted and applied to the body, or put in a child’s bath. Keep in mind that for some kids with sensory processing disorder this can actually have the opposite effect and overwhelm their senses. Certain oils also work better for some kids, so finding the right one for your child is key. My favorite brand is Eden’s Garden and they also have an “OK for Kids” line that has a sleep blend and roll-ons. If you’re new to essential oils, this is a great place to start.

Some oils that are calming and promote sleep include:

  • Lavender

  • Roman Chamomile

  • Valerian

  • Ylang Ylang


5. Give your child a massage

Massages can help relax the muscles and also provide a release from sensory overload from the day. If you’re unsure how to give a proper massage or need some tips, ask your child’s Occupational or Physical Therapist for some tips.


6. Take a look at your child’s diet

Caffeine (even up to 6 hours before bedtime) can still disrupt your child’s ability to fall asleep. If possible, try to completely eliminate any caffeinated beverages from the diet. If this is not doable, do not give your child caffeine after 1pm. Food and drinks that have caffeine (and hidden caffeine) include:

  • Soda and diet soda

  • Tea (herbal tea is an exception)

  • Coffee or coffee-flavored items (even decaf)

  • Chocolate

  • Protein bars

  • Candy bars

Sugar can also cause sleep disruption. Evaluate the amount of sugar your child is getting before bed or at dinner each night. This includes:

  • Juice

  • Candy and desserts

  • Milk and chocolate milk

  • Ketchup and condiments

  • Sports drinks

  • Sweet tea

  • Almost ANYTHING! Be sure to read the label of all your packaged foods


7. Take vitamins in the morning (except probiotics)

While vitamins will not cause hyperactivity, they may make it difficult to fall asleep at night. The process of metabolizing and absorbing a large dose of vitamins and minerals can keep the body stirring. Switch your child’s vitamin regimen to the morning unless otherwise specified. Probiotics are best taken at night to give the bacteria time and gut rest to colonize.


8. Consider supplements

If you have tried all of the above recommendations and your child is still having trouble falling asleep, consider trying nutritional supplements. We want to stray away from powerful sleeping medications, and even excessive use of melatonin. Some nutritional supplements* that may help relax your child before bed include:

If you are interested in purchasing any of these products, please send me an email and I’d be happy to get you a discount. You can also see my supplement dispensary by going to FullScript.

*Always consult with a healthcare professional for dosage and recommendations.


9. Try a kid-friendly alarm clock

Some kids get up in the middle of the night because they don’t know how long they should stay asleep. This alarm clock changes colors when it’s an acceptable time to get out of bed. This can help keep your child in bed in the middle of the night and teach them when it’s time to wake up, even if they can’t read time!





10. Try a weighted blanket

Weighted blankets have been shown to relax children on the autism spectrum and increase serotonin production. This hormone can calm a child down and encourage rest and sleep. NOTE: Make sure you get the appropriate weight for your child. Ask your OT for help calculating if you need guidance.




Recommended Hours of Sleep per Age

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References

[1] Devnani PA, Hegde AU. Autism and sleep disorders. J Pediatr Neurosci. 2015;10(4):304-7.

[2] Singh K, Zimmerman AW. Sleep in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Semin Pediatr Neurol. 2015;22(2):113-25.

[3] Sleep. Autism Speaks Website. Accessed 9 Apr 2019. https://www.autismspeaks.org/sleep

[4] Tzischinsky O, Meiri G, Manelis L, et al. Sleep disturbances are associated with specific sensory sensitivities in children with autism. Mol Autism. 2018;9:22.

[5] Klukowski M, Wasilewska J, Lebensztejn D. Sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances in autism spectrum disorder in children. Dev Period Med. 2015;19(2):157-61.

[6] Gao Q, Kou T, Zhuang B, Ren Y, Dong X, Wang Q. The Association between Vitamin D Deficiency and Sleep Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients. 2018;10(10)

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The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website.