I cringe when I hear parents of autistic children talk about how exhausted they are. I remember those sleepless nights and wouldn’t return to those days for anything. Tosh used to wake up most nights around 2 a.m. and once he was fully awake, he would be up for three or more hours. Usually, he’d nod off right before it was time to wake up for school or time for me to go to work. It was absolute torture, and when I look back at photos of myself from then, I look like a zombie. I felt like one, too!
Finally, after a few years of experimentation, we’ve cracked the sleep code at our house. Here is what works for Tosh:
A clean diet is a must
Diet is the most important factor in a good night’s sleep for Tosh. If he has any MSG or other artificial flavors or colors (especially Red 40) he won’t sleep. I figured this one out because I have the same reaction to MSG and food chemicals – it gives me shooting pains in my legs, restless leg syndrome and just a terrible sensation that makes it painful to live inside my skin. When he eats anything that isn’t clean (takeout pizza, almost every drive-thru meal, almost all of the processed food at the regular grocery store, most drinks, almost all candy, etc.) he doesn’t sleep well. I prepare most of his meals at home. He does eat plenty of processed and prepared foods, but they all come from healthy grocery brands and I read every single label first. Now, this might sound like a lot of work, and it is. But I promise you, when you have the luxury of a child who sleeps 10 or 11 hours a night, every night, it is worth every ounce of effort.
Check gluten, dairy and food allergies
In addition to a diet free of chemicals, Tosh is also gluten and dairy free. Not only do both of those compounds cause leaky gut syndrome and affect his behavior, they also caused severe gas. Those awful stomach pains kept him awake at night. I can’t stress it enough: diet is far and above the most important key to a good night’s sleep for Tosh.
Bath with epsom salts
Autistic people have a very difficult time eliminating toxins from their bodies, and toxins disrupt sleep. That’s why in addition to limiting the toxins they eat and are exposed to in their environment, it’s important to do all you can to help them eliminate the toxins you can’t avoid. A cup of epsom salts in a warm bath each night works wonders toward this end. Just pour the salt under the running tap and make sure you child remains in the bath for at least 20 minutes. Tosh likes to play with the salt granules in the bath as they dissolve. And, epsom salts taste terrible, so if your child has a bad habit of drinking bathwater (like we used to), this will help end it.
In addition to epsom salts, you can add a few drops of lavender essential oils to your child’s bath to make them feel extra relaxed and sleepy. You can also buy oil blends made for sleep. Tosh sometimes lets out a growl of complaint when I add lavender oil to his bath because he knows he’ll be lights out within a few minutes of leaving the tub.
We also use an essential oil diffuser with nighttime blends, and preparing it is part of our nighttime routine, which he enjoys. Lavender is our go-to for night time, but if he has a cold or is feeling generally irritable, I’ll use citrus, peppermint or tea tree oils.
Some essential oils are packaged to be applied directly to the skin. I have roll on blends for stuffy noses and headaches, and Tosh finds and applies them on his own when he’s not feeling well.
Other kids have found weighted blankets to be helpful. We’ve never tried them at bedtime because the above three techniques work so well.
If you have any other sleeping tips for other parents, please leave them in the comments section below.
Heather Anderson is a blissfully happy autism mom and lover of life in Southern California who is on a mission to help autism parents rediscover their happy place.
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