Autism and sleep: How to teach an autistic child to sleep alone

Children need to sleep to grow and develop, to be healthy and happy. Many autistic children suffer from sleep problems, making it difficult for them and their parents to get the hours of sleep they need.

Many factors may interfere with or benefit the sleep of autistic children, and in many cases – they are similar to the ones relevant to typically developing children. For example, in our last post, we gave some recommendations on conducting a regular sleeping ritual, which may benefit your child’s sleep. The factor we will address today concerns the ability of children to set themselves to sleep independently.

Many toddlers and children are not used to setting themselves to sleep independently. Some are accustomed to falling asleep in their parent’s lap, and some are accustomed to falling asleep as their parents sing to them or hold their hands. But for some children- These sleep habits can be challenging in the long term.

Why is this a problem?

We all wake up every now and then during our sleep—brief awakenings of a few seconds. If nothing bothers us, we immediately fall asleep again and usually don’t remember we woke up. Children who are not used to set themselves to sleep are dependent on their regular sleep habits and therefore need us to fall back asleep when they wake up in the middle of the night. To help them- We need to help them gradually change their habits and teach them to set themselves to sleep independently. 

Before we start going into details, we want to start by saying that we know these processes can be challenging. Many children, and especially autistic children, don’t like changes. A change in their sleep habits may cause distress at the beginning. We want to reassure you that the strategies we are offering are thoroughly researched, and the evidence shows that they are safe. It is possible to find a balance between meeting your child’s need for comfort and sleep, as well as your own need for rest. Your rest is essential. It gives you the physical and mental strength to take care of your child. 

There are many approaches to help your child sleep, and you may have to try a few different approaches to work out the best solution for your family. Today, we will talk about one approach, called: “Camping Out.” 

But before we start to talk about this specific approach, begin by examining the time you put your child to bed. Some children take very long from the minute they lie in bed until they fall asleep (1-2 hours). For some of these children, especially the more mature ones, bedtime may just be too early. You can start by putting them to bed only 20-30 minutes before the average time they fall asleep. If your child is still small, and you want to help them fall asleep earlier than the current time they do, do it gradually. Start by potting them to bed 20-30 minutes before they usually fall asleep, and make it 5 minutes earlier every few days. And now- let’s dive into “Camping Out”. 

What is: “Camping Out”? 

“Camping out” is a process of gradually moving away and reducing our involvement in the falling asleep process of our child. Before going to sleep, make sure your child is not hungry and is feeling well. Then, put your child to bed and follow the next steps. 

Step 1: Patting your child to sleep

Place a mattress or a chair next to your child. If your child needs your touch, pat or stroke them off to sleep. If not, just sit close to them. When your child is asleep, you can leave the room. Do this until your child gets used to falling asleep like this (Usually, it takes a few days). 
If you need to reassure your child– talk quietly and gently say it’s sleep time. It’s not the time for talking or playing. Try to keep the atmosphere calm and quiet. Avoid stories, music, or bright lights. 
If your child wakes overnight– You need to the same thing every time. Return to your place according to the step you are in. 

Step 2: Reduce your touch

Start reducing the amount of stroking or touching your child. Do this gradually until your child manages to fall asleep with your close presence but without your touch. 

Step 3: Moving away from your child

When your child is used to falling asleep without your touch, move your bed or chair a short distance from your child (around 30 cm). Stay in your place until your child falls asleep. In the next period of 1-3 weeks, increase this distance gradually until you reach the door of your child’s room and then out of the room. 

What should I do if my child cries? 

Most children cry when they are getting used to a new sleeping habit. It’s natural. They are used to the way things were up till now, and changes may be challenging and upsetting for them. Here are some things you can do when your child is crying while you are “Camping out.”

First of all, Start by telling yourself: “I am doing this to help my child to sleep better, grow and develop. I am taking care of my child”. We, the parents, also need to handle a great amount of stress here. 

Then listen to your child- is your child whining but not crying? Try to wait and see whether your child settles. You can also say something and let your child know you’re close. If your child is crying, you can get closer and stroke or touch your child to help them calm down. But once your child calms down, go back to your regular spot. Remind yourself that it is a process. It will take approximately 1-3 weeks until your child gets used to this new habit. 

Camping out can help many families, but it is not suitable for all parents and children. Your relationship with your child, your health, and your wellbeing are very important. A good sleep strategy should improve all these things in the long term. If you feel that these strategies are not working for you, remember that you can always consult with your GP or other professionals. They will be able to work out the adjustments needed for your child. 

One last thing: This approach is usually relevant for younger children. It does not work for children who can already get out of bed and come to you and do so again and again. For these children, we will share another post next week with practical tips.

Back to The Complete Guide for Helping Your Autistic Child Sleep Problems.