If your child does not sleep through the night, you are going to love this article! Until very recently I was lucky to get four or five broken hours shut eye…
Anyone who follows this blog will already know that severe sleep deprivation has been a major part of mine and hubby’s lives the entire time we’ve been parents. I’m not just talking about a few months here and there when the kids were tiny, I’m talking not having an entire week of unbroken sleep in over eight years. I’m sure most will agree that is a very long time.
Prior to our eldest daughter Polly’s autism diagnosis in 2015, we honestly thought we were just clueless parents, convinced that we must be missing a trick. We had to be going wrong somewhere along the line. Why did everyone else’s kid sleep through the night but not ours?
There’s no way to dress it up, right from birth Polly was a terrible sleeper. We didn’t know any different though, and took it on the chin in those early days. Things got really bad for us when I was heavily pregnant with our second daughter, Clara. After a hideous night of almost no sleep at all, I went to work and cried my eyes out, begging my old boss to let me start maternity leave a few weeks before I was due to.
By the time our new baby came along we were dreading the sleep side of things, and totally expected the worst
Fortunately for us we were blessed with an incredible sleeper. With no intervention from us whatsoever, Clara was getting a solid twelve hours by the time she was three months old. Polly however was up every night, seriously distressed, having monumental meltdowns. Her behaviour during the day was beyond challenging, and I look back on this time with immense sadness.
Everyone was miserable and it was definitely a turning point for us as a family. I went into frantic mama bear mode. Having suffered with gastro problems myself as a child, I became convinced that Polly’s issues were linked to allergies. Turns out I wasn’t entirely wrong, because just before her third birthday she was diagnosed with a food intolerance list as long as your arm. Cue two years of strict exclusion diets, as well as our third child.
The clean eating certainly helped, but it didn’t solve Polly’s sleep problems. By the time Freddy came along we’d read every website and parenting self-help book we could get our hands on. No matter what we tried nothing seemed to help Polly sleep through the night.
That is until our first autism assessment, where we heard two words that would change our lives: sleep hygiene
This term had never come up in anything we had previously read, but it instantly felt like we were being handed a gift. Sleep hygiene is essentially a series of bedtime (and for us nighttime) habits that need to be set in place and stuck to rigidly. It sounds so simple, but let’s face it, especially in hindsight, it always does.
The reason I feel qualified to share our experience now, is because we’ve been doing these things for more than two years and have ruled out any happy coincidences. I can put my hand on my heart and say that they definitely work.
Create good sleep hygiene, to help your child sleep through the night, using these steps
“Figure out a bedtime routine that suits everyone, and stick to it like glue.”
Our paediatrician Dr. K’s words now sound like a complete no-brainer. Trust me though, having sat on both sides of the fence, I know how hard it can be to devise, implement and adhere to a routine. With the best will in the world, life gets in the way doesn’t it? The thing about a sleep problem, is that it really needs to be given top priority within the family. When your child is sleep deprived, so are you, and we all know that it’s a form of torture.
Give yourself at least three months to put these steps into place, without expectation or changes to the schedule. We started seeing improvements in Polly after the first week, but once we’d been at it for three months real progress was evident.
Things to consider before anything else
Creating a good sleeping environment is just as important as the routine itself. A dark cosy room, which isn’t full of distractions is a must, especially for children on the spectrum whose minds can be more difficult to quiet at the end of a busy day. Polly had her own room for years, and our younger two shared, but we moved her in with Clara about a year ago and it improved Polly’s sleep even further.
Something we hadn’t banked on was that sometimes Polly was waking in the night because she felt lonely, and now that she has the presence of her sister in the room that isn’t the case.
The girls adore their bunk beds and devised a rota among themselves for who sleeps at the top so there are no arguments. They agreed that Polly could go first as she’s the eldest, then after one week it was Clara’s turn, then Polly, etc. During the first week they actually decided they liked the Polly up top/Clara at the bottom set up and have not been arguing about swapping.
For those considering bunk beds for children who have a fairly small age gap, and will find any excuse to argue, I can highly recommend thinking about a rota.
Things to do before bedtime
It’s easy to say keep stress to a minimum, but it does massively impact the witching hour. In my experience stress has always been the number one trigger for meltdowns during bedtime. The trouble is, once stress hormones have been stirred up, it can be very difficult to get your child to go to sleep.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that calm is the most important factor in getting a decent nights rest. Even once a child is asleep, the quality of that sleep will likely be poor if they’ve stressed themselves out beforehand.
My children usually watch a film in the early evening, and we don’t allow small screens past 5pm. We have at least half an hour, if not longer, downtime between the TV going off and the kids going to bed. This allows them sufficient transition time from one task to the next.
Things to do during bedtime
I take my hat off to those who have multiple children of varying ages, and manage to stick to a routine at the exact same time every single night. For us we aim for certain things to happen within a time frame, but with the best will in the world it isn’t always possible.
We also find with our kids that a routine will work for a few months, then things will start sliding and need to be changed. We have structured our evening quiet time around playing LEGO, colouring, doing jigsaw puzzles and reading stories. At the moment they are enjoying meditation sleep stories in bed, which help them relax before dropping off.
It’s also vital that Polly gets to tick everything off her mental check list before going to sleep, otherwise she feels like something is missing. She needs to have fresh water in her bottle, she needs to know the details of what will be happening the next day, her hair has to be tied up in a certain way, and she absolutely must get goodnight kisses from the entire family. It took us a long while to realise that not ticking everything off her list was causing her serious anguish.
Things to do for night time wake ups
The million pound question for us c.2015 was what to do in the middle of night when Polly woke up distressed for whatever reason. The answer was getting to the bottom of what she needed and finding a solution as quickly as possible.
When we started out, Polly was waking on average ten times a night, often having bedtime-like meltdowns in the small hours. We were advised by Dr. K to silently guide her back to bed, without interacting with her, even if it took all night. My husband and I were absolutely dreading this, and the first few nights were indeed horrendous, but by the end of the first week we saw a massive improvement. By the end of the month we were astonished at how far we’d come, and by the time we had hit the three month mark she was consistently sleeping through the night for the first time ever.
Nowadays Polly only wakes in the middle of the night if she needs the toilet, or has had a scary dream and wants some comfort. I honestly cannot remember the last time she was up for more than fifteen minutes in the middle of the night.
Bottom line is, if your child is a poor sleeper, you are going to be sleep deprived which adds an extra layer of difficulty to your days as a parent. Here are my biggest tips to help your kids get some Zzzzz’s:
- eat a healthy balanced diet of real food
- rule out any medical problems
- limit small screens, especially in the hour or two before bed
- ensure their sleeping environment is comfortable, a good quality bed is an absolute must
- keep stress to a minimum
- structure your bedtime routine around doing quiet activities to wind down
- read or listen to stories while your child is in bed
- make sure their mental checklist has been completed
- meet their needs in the night quickly with minimal interaction
Best of luck mama’s and dada’s. I hope you get your child sleeping through the night in no time!