Most parents struggle at one time or other to get their children to sleep. Tantrums before bedtime, waking up at night, refusing to fall back asleep are common behaviours in children. If your child is experiencing any of these problems, you are definitely not alone.
Though the numbers vary from study to study, researchers estimate that 26 percent to 32 percent of typically-developing children experience sleep problems. An even larger portion of children (estimates range from 53 to 78 percent) with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience the same issues(1).
Researchers believe that the biological systems that lead to autism symptoms could also be the reason that people with autism experience sleep problems(2,3.) While researchers are still trying to understand the causes of sleep problems in ASD, they have found that treating them can also help improve daytime behaviour.
Sleep and Daytime Behaviour
Sleep is essential. It helps regulate mood and movement. It even enables learning (4) and helps us turn our experiences into long-term memories. When we don’t get enough sleep, a whole range of problems can result.
“Look at how we feel when we do not get a good night’s sleep,” Dr. Beth Malow, director of the Vanderbilt Sleep Division and the Vanderbilt Sleep Research Core, says. “Children with ASD are going to have a harder time with attention, ability to focus, ability to stay calm in emotional situations - all of these things could be affected.”
Studies show that certain types of sleep problems are associated with deficits in specific skills in children with autism. For example, one study found that children who woke up during the night experienced more speech problems than children who did not. In addition, children who did not get enough sleep had motor deficits that hindered daily activities like eating and grooming (5). Those who experienced sleep problems also showed more hyperactivity (6,7), aggression (5), and repetitive behaviours (6).
What Causes Sleep Disturbances In Children With ASD?
Often, typically-developing children experience sleep problems because they do not follow a bedtime routine (8). The reasons in children with autism, however, are much more complicated.
Researchers in Italy found that one-quarter of the children with ASD who participated in their study had experienced sleep and feeding problems since birth. On that basis, they suggested that sleep problems may have biological causes (2). This study and several others point to a problem related to the production of melatonin - a hormone that that is related to our daily biological or ‘circadian’ rhythms (9,10).
The rise and drop in body temperature, the release of hormones, bowel movements, sleep - all of them happen at about the same time in a day for most healthy people. One of the functions of circadian rhythms is to control the release of melatonin according to changes in daylight. Our bodies produce less melatonin during the day and more at night. When more melatonin is produced, our body temperature dips and we feel drowsy - conditions necessary for a good night’s sleep.
Researchers believe that the pathways involving circadian rhythms and melatonin production could be negatively affected in individuals with autism, leading not just to sleep problems but also to sensitivity to light and temperature (9).
Evaluating the causes of Insomnia to Improve Sleep In Children With ASD Whatever the physiological reasons, many children with ASD experience insomnia - a type of sleep disorder that causes the individual to have difficulty with falling and staying asleep (8,11).
Dr. Malow’s sleep study recommends screening all children with ASD for insomnia. She also suggests evaluating the child for any underlying medical conditions that may contribute to it, such as seizures, disordered breathing, or gastrointestinal problems. If these conditions exist, the healthcare provider may refer the child to a sub-specialist for treatment(1).
Sleep problems could also be a side effect of the medications the child is taking to treat their autism symptoms(1). If this is the case, the healthcare provider could work with a sleep specialist to decide if the medications need to be changed or the dosage altered. Dr. Malow adds that stimulating medications could also be taken earlier in the day so that their effects wear off by bedtime.
Medicines and Supplements as Treatments for Insomnia
Though a number of supplements have been evaluated (2), melatonin is the most promising. It has been shown to improve the quantity and quality of sleep in children with ASD. It has also been shown to decrease challenging daytime behaviours such as hyperactivity, and repetitive and compulsive behaviours (12).
However, studies proving melatonin’s effectiveness have involved only a small number of children. Researchers need to conduct studies with more individuals before children with autism start using melatonin as a viable treatment for their sleep disorders. Dr. Malow advises that families use behavioural interventions to treat sleep problems before treating children with melatonin or other supplements.
Behavioural Interventions For Sleep Problems In Children With ASD Behavioral interventions can be effective in reducing sleep problems. They can include lessening stressful situations during the day (2,13) and encouraging good bedtime routines (13,14).
“The child might have some issues like drinking caffeine, watching stimulating videos or playing with their computers too close to bedtime,” Dr. Malow explains. “We really try to pinpoint what the problem is.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly encourages parents to reduce the time that their children spend watching television or using digital devices before bed (15).
Researchers in Australia found that children with ASD and sleep problems were falling asleep in ways that did not help them get back to sleep by themselves when they awoke during the night (13,14). Some children in their study fell asleep in a family member’s bed, on a couch, or with a bottle.
The researchers tested methods for implementing appropriate changes in bedtime routines that supported independent and restful sleep and found that they were able to improve the children’s sleep by applying the behavioural methods (13,14). Parents can make changes to disruptive bedtime behaviours by phasing them gradually out or eliminating them all at once. Children should engage in quiet and less stimulating activities outside of the bedroom before bedtime. That way, the child is calm before bed, and learns to associate the bedroom with sleep and other rooms with other activities (13,14) Parents need to set an appropriate bedtime for a child, and let the child know when she is expected to wake up (14).
Some children with autism understand step-by-step visual instructions better than spoken instructions. Putting up a series of pictures depicting a good bedtime routine on the bedroom wall would be a helpful technique. Rewarding the child for maintaining consistency in those activities is also important (13).
Dr. Malow suggests regularly monitoring a child for sleep problems in order to treat them effectively. If none of these interventions work, she says families can then consider using medication to improve sleep.
Alternative Therapies To Improve Sleep
Parents use a host of methods hoping to improve their children’s sleep problems including massage therapy, acupuncture, and homeopathy. Research on the effectiveness of these methods is either inconclusive or nonexistent (16,17,18).
If you think your child is not getting adequate sleep, talk to your healthcare team about interventions that could help your child reap the benefits of restful sleep.
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