We have been struggling with V’s sleeping patterns for almost two years now. And he is only 2 years and 8 months old! As an infant, we did not notice anything different, he basically did what every infant does; he slept, ate, pooped, slept, ate, pooped, slept, ate… you get the picture! When he was about 9 months old we started teaching him to fall asleep alone. We used the same “super nanny” methods we had used on JA but they did not seem to work. He just jumped up and down in his crib – sometimes for hours – without falling asleep. We did not know what to do but as long as he was happily playing in his crib and eventually fell asleep on his own, we were not too concerned. The problems started for real when he turned two and became too big for his crib.
Like always, he had difficulty settling down and now that he was in a normal bed, this meant that he was constantly crawling out of bed. We tried every trick in the book but nothing worked. As he grew older it became worse and at first we did not realize why. But as his sleep during the night constantly decreased, we saw that his daily nap in the kindergarten became longer and longer, sometimes even reaching 4 hours! It was as if he was compensating for his lack of sleep during the night with his daytime nap.
We talked about it with the kindergarten and asked them if they could help us with this problem by waking him up. Unfortunately their answer surprised us. They were absolutely firm on their policy of never waking up the children. This they based on studies that indicate how important naps are for children. We tried telling them that his daily naps were beginning to affect his night sleep to the extent where he was not falling asleep until 10 or 11 pm and then waking up around 6:00 am but they were unwavering.
During summer vacation 2011 we managed to reduce V’s sleep substantially down to approximately one hour a day, something much more normal for a 2 year old, and as a result, his night sleep became much better although it still took him quite long to fall asleep. But as soon as summer vacation was over it all went back to the old patterns.
Since then, we’ve had several meetings with the nursery about this problem without any significant change. We have asked them if he could just let him stay awake and NOT nap during the day (he usually does not nap on weekends or holidays and seemingly without affecting him but it substantially helps with his night sleep) but they are not fond of that idea. And while the current situation continues, our V is so restless when it is time for bed that he cannot calm down and fall asleep. And since it usually takes about two hours (and sometimes more) it is cutting out our quality time as a couple.
It does not help much that our other son, JA, usually wakes up around 6:00 am which leaves us with two bad choices. Postpone going to sleep until late in order to get some quality time together and then be tired in the morning due to lack of sleep, or skip our quality time and go to sleep early in order to not be sleep deprived the day after. An ideal situation huh!?! Frankly, this has been going on for so long that it has come to the point that we are about to give up. We desperately need something to change.
After researching online it is clear to me that sleeping problems are common in autistic individuals. Apparently, children with autism have been found to sleep less at night than other children. Further, it is common that they have unusual routines for settling to sleep and may sleep walk or have more nightmares than other children.
One article by Dr Avril Brereton particularly caught my attention. She states: “The sleep difficulties reported in children with autism include problems with: Sleep onset and maintenance, irregular sleep-wake patterns, poor sleep, early waking, alterations in sleep onset and wake times and night waking.” She goes on: “The sleep-wake cycle is a circadian rhythm (light-dark cycle) but humans also use social cues to entrain circadian rhythms. For example, social cues and routine are thought to help infants develop the pattern of having the longest sleep at night (as for the rest of the family). For children with autism, it may be that the social and communication difficulties they have are influencing their ability to “read” the social cues and understand the instructions about going to bed and sleeping…”
I have been looking around for solutions and since I would like to prevent medication if possible I have been looking for a natural way to solve this. What I have found is that many parents of autistic children suggest that people try Melatonin, a naturally occurring compound found in animals, plants, and microbes. Interestingly, when I looked it up on Wikipedia I found this:
“In humans, melatonin is produced by the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland located in the center of the brain. [...] The melatonin signal forms part of the system that regulates the sleep-wake cycle by chemically causing drowsiness and lowering the body temperature. [...] Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may have lower than normal levels of melatonin. A 2008 study found that unaffected parents of individuals with ASD also have lower melatonin levels, and that the deficits were associated with low activity of the ASMT gene, which encodes the last enzyme of melatonin synthesis. Multiple small studies have demonstrated that 2 to 10 mg of melatonin may benefit children with ASD who have trouble falling asleep and/or maintaining sleep.”
Well, I guess I have just found my next destination: The doctor’s office…
If you have any experience with how to tackle sleeping problems of autistic children or have tried Melatonin it would be very interesting to hear your thoughts on that. All comments are very well appreciated.