Autism and Sleep- Setting boundaries around sleep

Lying in bed, my ankles sore, my husband reads his book with a reading lamp.

Five minutes later, Michal arrives, stands at the door, and shouts, “Get back to bed” with a cheerful face (she really likes to say what we usually say in a particular situation).

I’m getting up to put her back to bed.

My husband: “Invest in her regulation, give her a massage”.

Me: “I already gave her 20 minutes of Indian massage”.

The second time she doesn’t even say anything and just sits down next to us. Her little sister, who was already almost asleep when I left the room, woke up, and now she says, “Mom, I’m not tired at all. It’s lonely for me at night to lie in bed when I want to talk, and I have no one to talk to.”

This time my husband puts them both back to bed, a little more determined. But I already understand – that even the few plans I had to go to sleep will not come true. And as I thought, after a while, we hear Michal’s jumps and her cries, “Sponge Bob, Pizza, Sponge Bob.”

I ask if you are familiar with the scene – because I know it is common to many families, with or without a child with autism. For many of us, sleep is seen as a pleasure, a privilege, something that is always lacking and always needs more of it. But in fact, sleep can also be a complex thing for children – because entering sleep also signifies separation. Farewell from the last day, farewell from us, the parents until the following day, farewell to the unknown in the dark sleep. In children with autism, many of whom have difficulties with regulation and sleep problems, it is even more complex. So in many cases, when children realize that they can get out of bed and postpone going to bed – they do not hesitate to explore this new strategy. So in this post, which is the third in our sleep series, we want to offer you tips for tackling this challenge.

But before you start applying our tips, try to linger and answer the following question:

Why does my child get out of bed and call me?

  • Is it because he needs my help? For example – he has to go to the bathroom, the pajamas’ ticket itches him, etc. In these cases, we will break free from the tips and strategies and just help our children.
  • Do they have separation anxiety? Or another type of bedtime anxiety? If so, it may be appropriate to use other strategies – which we will get to in another post.
  • If you feel that your children are getting out of bed because they are looking for a way to keep you around during sleep, it’s time to ask yourself: Is this okay with me? If the answer is yes, and you’re happy to go back to the room with them and stay a little each time they call you, that’s fine. But if this is something you would like to change (and I guess so because you came in to read the post), we will offer you several ways to tackle this challenge.

Step One – Have a regular sleeping ritual

If you haven’t read my first post on the subject, I recommend you go back to it and start with this strategy. Often, the consistency of the sleep ritual helps children lower their energy level, increase their sense of control and reduce their anxiety level. All the information you need to formulate an effective sleep ritual is in the post, but I want to give you two more tips. The first is to make the ceremony meaningful but not too long. It depends on the child’s age, but there is really no need to do a sleeping ritual longer than half an hour, even for older children.

I want that if the kids get out of bed after the bedtime ceremony, you will have some energy left to deal with it calmly and not be completely drained. Tip two is to do a “last check” before you leave the room. Are your children drinking? Went to the bathroom? Need a night light? Remind them what to expect and say, for example: “Good night sweetie, it’s time to go to bed. When you are quiet, I will come and take a look at you and see that everything is fine.”

But sometimes, even after a positive and relaxed sleep ritual, our children still get out of bed or call us. If you want to help your child learn to relax and fall asleep alone, the keyword is: consistency.

If your child calls you out of bed, make a sound so he can feel that you are here, available to him in case of need or distress. But if you think he does not need immediate help, it’s okay not to enter the room. If he gets out of bed and comes to you – calmly return him to bed. There is no need to talk too much, in fact, it may have the opposite effect. This is not the time for long explanations about the importance of sleep or for educational lectures (“We invested and read you 3 stories, and you still get up. Maybe next time we will not do it at all if it does not help you sleep”). Instead, it’s better to say, “It’s time to sleep sweet, I’ll get you back to bed.” That’s it. So simple in theory, not always simple in practice. Why? Because a lot of times, our kids will not give up easily, and sometimes we will have to put them back to bed over and over while we stay calm and consistent. If you feel that visual support, such as drawing a child lying in bed, can help your child with autism internalize and better understand your requirement – do not hesitate to use one. Once they relax a bit and stay in bed, strengthen your children. You can pass by the room after a while and say, for example: “Congratulations on lying quietly good night.”