Parenting Tips: Ways to reduce sleep problems for your child


Question: “My son is 7 years old with autism. He is not willing to sleep on his own and needs me to sleep with him every night. If I am not back from work, he will sleep with his helper. How can we make him a more independent sleeper?” — from a parent

A child who has difficulties going to bed, falling asleep, staying asleep, and returning to sleep, can make bedtime a challenge for you as a parent/caregiver. Often, your patience is tested through long hours of frustration before your child goes to sleep. In the end, you find yourself either sleeping in your child’s bed or having the child sleep in your bed.

Sleep disturbances can place a tremendous strain on your entire family. For parents/caregivers, you may have insufficient energy for the next day as a result of the battle over bedtime. The child’s siblings may also get their sleep disturbed. For your child, insufficient sleep can result in daytime sleepiness, learning problems where the ability to learn new and critical skills is greatly decreased. Behavioral issues such as hyperactivity, inattention, and aggression may surface as well. For a child undergoing therapy or schooling, this can greatly affect his/her learning.

As we all know, sleep habits are extremely difficult to change. Even for adults, our sleep may be disturbed when we sleep in a different bed, sleep with a different pillow, or on a different side of the bed. Naturally, once your child is used to sleeping with you or going to bed late at night, any change in the routine will be met with resistance. The sooner the problem is addressed, the easier it is to help your child sleep independently. This way, everyone in the family can also get a good night’s sleep.


To get started, be sure that you prepare yourself by getting as much sleep as you can or catch up on your sleep during the day, as you may not be able to have a restful sleep for several days. Choose a period that will be best for you to be able to provide consistent intervention.

Next, here are some steps you can follow to reduce sleep problems:


#Step 1:  Setting up a nighttime routine that eases your child to sleep

For example, a typical nighttime routine can start with giving your child a calming hot bath, followed by putting on pajamas, and brushing teeth. The night can end with reading a bedtime story or listening to calming music. This nighttime routine will encourage a consistent sleep habit and be helpful to your child falling asleep.  

#Step 2: Selecting the proper bedtime

To increase your child’s tiredness and willingness to go to bed, it is advisable to start the routine at a much later hour than the time you would ideally like him to fall asleep. Gradually, bedtime could be pushed earlier to help your child go to bed at the desired timing. An extra tip is to reduce or eliminate nap time. The goal here is to get your child the necessary hours of sleep on a reliable schedule.  

#Step 3:Developing a “sleep” object to help your child fall back asleep during the night

The most common sleep problem is awakening in the middle of the night. Your child may not know how to put themselves back to sleep, he ends up wandering around the house, jump on the bed, or climb into their parents’ bed. To help your child learn how to fall back asleep during the night, the best method is to establish an object that is highly associated with sleep. For example, give your child a soft blanket, stuffed animals, or play soothing music, when he is sleepy. It may also be helpful to stroke his face soothingly with the blanket. Over time, as your child learns how to fall back asleep during the night, he can do so without the objects.

#Step 4: Keeping your child in bed

If your child continuously gets out of bed, you will need to repeatedly place him back in his own bed in a neutral manner. This should be done in the shortest possible time with the least opportunity to fuss. Once he realizes that he will end up in his bed, and receive absolutely no attention, he will give up. This process requires a lot of patience and persistence. The good news is that you will eventually be rewarded with undisturbed sleep.


#Step 5: Sleeping in one’s own bed to encourage independence and autonomy

Often, you may wake up to find your child sleeping in your bed, so unless you want him sleeping with you when he is an adolescent, you should discourage him from sleeping in your bed now. The process is the same in the previous point, of putting your child back to their own bed with the least intrusive method.
Naturally, if it is age-appropriate, he can come into your bed on weekend mornings to snuggle and watch cartoons, or a certain timing in the day for him to come in.

#Step 6: Nap times

If your child still requires a nap, our advice is to do so in his or her own bed. This will support the habit and the bedtime routine of sleeping in his bed at nighttime. However, as discussed in point 2, it is best to reduce or eliminate naps so that your child will be more tired at night.



• My child often wakes up very early and may not be tired, and then wakes the whole family up. What should we do? Answer: Rather than try to directly make him sleep, you could prevent all other non-sleep activities from occurring. For example, keep away any toys, snacks, beverages, and keep the lights off. By keeping the environment quiet and dark, this is a good suggestion of sleep.
• My child is sick and frightened, should I let him sleep in my bed so I can provide comfort and care? Answer: Our advice is to put your child back in his or her own bed and then provide the care and comfort there.

Information provided by:

Reshani Satharasinghe (Autism Partnership Behavior Consultant)
Reshani Satharasinghe holds a Bachelor of Science in Animal Biology from the National University of Singapore and has a Masters in Applied Behavior Analysis from St. Cloud State University. She has provided behavior therapy for children on the autism spectrum since the inception of our Singapore office in 2004, under the direction of Associate Director, Mr. Toby Mountjoy. In 2005, she was seconded to our office in Seal Beach, California to complete a 15 months internship, under the supervision of our Directors, Drs. Ronald Leaf and John McEachin.

Since her return in January 2007, she ran the training programme for new staff. She also provided intensive parent training through our Supernanny/Res-Q programme. In 2008, she became a Case Supervisor, providing clinical support and case management. In 2010, she completed a 5-month attachment to our UK office and worked as the Regional Coordinator of Services in Leeds.She returned to Singapore in August 2010 to provide consultation, supervision and training to both clients, parents and staff in Singapore, as well as regionally. Reshani is currently a Behavior Consultant at AP Singapore and regularly conducts a series of training workshops, lectures and school consultations to both professionals and members of the public. Reshani is also Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).


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