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Autism and Sleep: Setting up Routines for Bedtime Success

Apr 25, 2019
Autism and Sleep

Everyone needs sleep, but getting enough sleep can be hard. Sleep problems are especially common in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Sleep difficulties may lead to more problematic behavior and exhaustion for everyone involved. Here are ideas that may be helpful for improving sleep in children with ASD.

Daytime Habits

The journey to healthy sleep begins by creating helpful habits during the day. Your child should wake at the same time every day – even on weekends. Soon after waking, they should see bright light. Open window blinds to let in sunlight or turn on overhead lights.

Breakfast is very important. Eating meals at the same time every day helps train your child’s brain to know when it is time to be awake or asleep. And, make sure your child gets plenty of exercise.

If your child is 5 years of age or older, avoid naps. You may need to plan activities to help them stay awake during the day. If they are young enough to nap:

  • They should sleep in their bed
  • Naps should end no later than 3:00 p.m.

Evening Habits 

Caffeine can stay active in our body for up to 12 hours. This means that if your child drinks a caffeinated beverage at 12:00 p.m., it may keep them awake until 12:00 a.m. Your child should not exercise two to three hours before bedtime and should not do stimulating activities one hour before bedtime.

Schedule activities that your child dislikes or has trouble completing earlier in the evening. This will help decrease stress close to bedtime.

Bedtime Routine

Do the same activities every night to prepare your child for sleep. This bedtime routine should be about 20 to 30 minutes long. Be careful not to allow your child to extend the routine beyond this time.

It may be helpful to create a visual or object schedule. This will help your child follow along with the steps that need to be completed. Activities that are part of the bedtime routine should be calming. These may include massage, reading a book or singing a song. You know your child best. What is calming for one child may be stimulating for another.

Sleep Environment

Create a space that encourages sleep. Use your child’s bed only for sleep. Do not allow them to use electronics, play with toys or do other activities on their bed. This may mean putting toys in closed containers. If you give your child a security object at night such as a blanket or stuffed animal, choose one that is basic. Sounds, textures, or moveable parts may be distracting or stimulating for children.

The temperature in your child’s bedroom should be less than 75°F. Lamps or overhead lights should not be on during the night. Use nightlights instead.

Using a white noise machine will help keep your child from being disturbed by noise around them. If your child falls asleep with a white noise machine on, it should stay on the entire night.

Consistently using these tips may help your child with ASD sleep more sound, which may mean more sleep for you too!

For more information, visit the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
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Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Catrina Litzenburg, PhD
Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

Catrina Litzenburg, PhD, is a licensed psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at The Ohio State University. Dr. Litzenburg specializes in integrated behavioral health care and sleep. She obtained her PhD from the University of Kansas.

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700 Children’s features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.