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Why won’t my child sleep?

Some of you reading this are just at the start of your journey, others are years in, but regardless of where you are, your journey is unique and diverse. Every day is a school day and when it comes to research on sleep, anxiety and autism and how it can all interlink for a child (or adult) so it’s important to keep up to date. As a mother of two young boys, one of which is autistic, I know first-hand of the most wonderful and most challenging journeys we face every day. It’s truly a remarkable roller coaster full of ups and downs, building momentum as years go on. I spent 16 years as a specialist teacher for students with additional needs and then went on to lecture at a college to help teach young people understand SEND. For me though, this just wasn’t enough. I re-trained as a sleep consultant and specialised in infant, child and autism sleep methods so I can help others understand their child’s sleep journey, their battles and their victories each step of the way.

My inspiration is my child, and like many of you reading this, you too will find your strength in order to achieve what you want. Like the Ying and Yang of life, my 7-year-old struggled so badly with sleep, whereas my 5-year-old loves his sleep (big sigh of relief) I remember the nights when I dreaded the ‘witching hours’ between 4pm and 9pm (and most of the night to be honest). I remember the screams, the cries and constant holding and rocking just to settle my boy down. Just to give him a glimpse of comfort and sleep he so badly needed. At this point we  didn’t know he was autistic but the signs soon became more and more apparent until he was finally diagnosed at 5 years old. Sleep was his (and our) biggest battle. To say he didn’t ‘like sleep’ was an understatement. He woke up on average 6-8 times a night, took 1-2 hours to settle back down and then he would wake up every 30 minutes. Sleep deprivation hit hard!

“When you feel you’ve tried EVERYTHING!!! These specialised sleep solutions do actually work!”

Guilt & Frustration

It was only then I realised it was actually possible to fall asleep standing up! Who knew? Like many parents, I felt I had tried everything. I did exactly what the health visitors told me to do, I even had 2 sleep specialists come in to try and help. The methods they suggested was Cry it Out or Controlled crying – two techniques I would never recommend for an autistic and anxious child – I will explain why as we go on. None of these methods helped and instead left me as a parent in a world of guilt and frustration for allowing my child to cry for hours each night. But this is what was encouraged, so as a new time mum your gut instinct gets shoved to the back and you listen to the experts right? By the end of it all, the sleep experts openly said they don’t know what to do, and there’s nothing else they can recommend.

Gentle Sleep Methods

SEVEN years on, and the world of sleep, the scientific research and the sleep methods have developed greatly. This is where I come in. Over time I developed gentle sleep methods to support autistic children and with my training linked in, my child now sleeps through the night. This was in all honesty, something I never thought would happen. The sleep solutions I had created were successful, and have been successful with all the families I have worked with since. When I trained as a sleep consultant, it was obvious to me that knowledge on autism and sleep was limited, even within the sleep consultancy world. Parents and carers around the world were struggling to get their children to sleep using traditional sleep methods and were feeling like they had failed because their child didn’t sleep like their peers. When they sought out help, the wrong advice was being given to them leaving them with a sense of failure and disappointment you should never have to feel. One thing I always emphasise is that you are doing a great job. The fact you want to learn about your child and how to help, suggests to me you’re a great parent. Sleep is very complex and no one should expect you to have all the answers especially when these answers and still being discovered. So just remember to breathe and give yourself a break at times. It’s a long journey so don’t be hard on yourself.

“Over 80% of autistic children struggle with sleep”

Let’s talk sleep methods

The facts are something we need to know before going forward on a sleep journey. The fact is, up to 80% of autistic people struggle to sleep. This is not because of your parenting techniques, it’s not about your beliefs, it’s not even about what’s right and wrong. The most important thing is to get your child the best sleep possible for them. Sleep is of course so important for developmental and brain growth, social skills as well as academic skills, so we need to remember lack of sleep is not a healthy option and improvement in sleep needs to come first in order to improve anything else going on in our lives. This will look different for each and every child so try not to engage in what other people say your child should be doing as part of their bedtime routine. This is a very individual journey that has to be right for your child, no one else’s.

Evidence suggests that melatonin levels are often reduced for people with autism and so you may hear a lot about Melatonin ‘top ups’ in either pill or liquid form. It is important to understand melatonin is naturally produced in everyone. It starts to build in the later afternoon and into the evening and help you to gentle and naturally fall asleep at night. For many autistic children (and adults) not enough melatonin is produced so you may find your child struggling to settle at night, fidgeting instead of sleeping, easily distracted – basically it seems like they are fighting sleep and their brain can’t switch off. This can be so frustrating for both parent and child and can seem like you’re fighting a losing battle (trust me, I knew it well). If you are considering using melatonin for your child, you will need to speak to a Paediatrician to get approval and a prescription – GP can not do this for you.

Circadian Rhythm

Another thing to consider is your child’s Circadian Rhythm. In some cases, autistic children’s Day/ Night rhythm can be different to what we would expect. Most people feel sleepy and night and awake during the day. This is because a darker environment helps produce melatonin and tells your body it’s time for sleep. Daylight however tells your body to wake up.  This is a natural circadian rhythm which helps us all sleep at the right time. But what if your body doesn’t interpret it that way? What if your body struggles to regulate day and night sleep and therefore can’t naturally stay asleep at night? In this case, you are likely to see frequent waking nights that feel impossible to master by using traditional sleep methods. Sound familiar?

Vicky Cooksley

Autism and anxiety often come hand in hand with one another. This is another thing you will need to consider when working out the right sleep method and routine for your child. Sleep routines don’t just start from 7pm like we are often told. When anxiety is factored in, you also need to look at how to reduce this anxiety before bed time routine starts. Many people and sleep specialist forget this part when actually it’s one of the most important factors to achieving sleep solutions.

Now I have a task for you…

Try reducing anxiety for your child before bed time by giving them a calm activity that’s positive for them. This could be reading a book, playing trains, watching T.V – anything that helps calm them down and helps regulate their mood.

Many families face these and so many more sleep battles each and every night. I could go on for pages explaining all the different reasons to why your child needs a bespoke sleep plan, but I would have to write a book to cover them all. There are indeed so many other areas to look at when getting the right sleep solutions for your child and to see steady improvement. It takes time, consistency and effort. It also takes knowledge on how to adapt traditional sleep methods and how to implement them successfully to achieve the goals you are hoping for. It can be a wonderous road full of small victories and great successes – but you need the right ingredients first.

If you would like to know more about how I work to get the right sleep plan for you and your child, please do get in touch. I’ve created many free resources and guides to get you started on your sleep journey, but if you feel you may need a bespoke and individualised plan to get faster and long terms results, I also have a sleep package to suit you.

You can find me at: vcsleep@gmail.com