Trouble sleeping?

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA   9.18.19

Ahhhh, sleep.  This is one of the most basic needs for all living creatures, and often is seen as a preferred activity.  Not only does it feel good to fall asleep, and to get a good amount if sleep, it is actually critical to our biological, cognitive and emotional functioning.

There are many people who have a hard time with sleeping.  Sleep problems can range from having a hard time falling asleep, waking up during the night, and sleeping too much.  All sleep issues can impact well-being.

Research shows that people need a certain amount of sleep each night.  The amount you need depends largely on your age group.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the following guidelines should be followed regarding sleep:


Age Group Recommended Hours of Sleep Per Day
Newborn 0–3 months 14–17 hours (National Sleep Foundation)
No recommendation (American Academy of Sleep Medicine)
Infant 4–12 months 12–16 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
Toddler 1–2 years 11–14 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
Preschool 3–5 years 10–13 hours per 24 hours (including naps)
School Age 6–12 years 9–12 hours per 24 hours
Teen 13–18 years 8–10 hours per 24 hours
Adult 18–60 years 7 or more hours per night
61–64 years 7–9 hours
65 years and older 7–8 hours

When people don’t get enough sleep, they don’t feel as good.  Studies have consistently shown that inadequate sleep can lead to poor cognitive functioning,  depressed mood, anxiety, and ADHD.  For some of these issues, there may be a connection where the symptoms of the disorder lead to decreased sleep, and then decreased sleep can exaggerate the problem further. * Poor sleep can also cause physical ailments.  Diabetes and obesity have both been linked to insufficient sleep.  Sleep apnea can also be connected to poor cardiovascular health.

Improving sleep is important for anyone who is struggling with getting a good amount of sleep.  This holds true for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities as well.  So how can we address it when we our someone we care for is having sleep issues?

  1.  Look at evening routines.  What is going on to help you or someone else wind down in the evening?  For kids, it is important to have a bedtime routine.  This will help establish a pattern to help bodies and minds quiet down in preparation for falling asleep.  A common and healthy bedtime routine for kids may include a small snack, a bath or shower, quiet reading time, and soft music.  For adults, it is important to slow down at the end of the day also.  Cardio exercise or housework right before bed might not work well if you are having a hard time sleeping.
  2. Try to go to bed at about the same time every night, and to wake up at about the same time every morning.  Your body will get used to this routine and this can help sleep quite a bit.
  3. Eating and drinking before bed.  A small snack or sip of water is ok, but avoid eating or drinking things with sugar or caffeine, and eating too much of anything can keep you awake.  Try not to drink too much liquid before bed as this may cause you to wake up in the night (and possibly have a hard time falling asleep).
  4. Screens.  We just can’t say enough about how screens affect our sleep.  All studies point to poor effects of screens on sleep cycles.  Not only can it make it harder to fall asleep if you have been looking at a device or a laptop right before bed, the blue light from these devices can actually affect your sleep cycles during the night even after you’ve fallen asleep.  On top of that, looking at screens is kind of addictive.  If you are watching something on your device, it’s easy to keep watching or just watch a few minutes of the next show, or the next thing that pops up on YouTube.  Experts recommend turning off screens at least an hour before bed to help your brain get ready to sleep.  By the way, plain e-readers without the blue light are fine before bed.
  5. Use relaxation techniques.  This can include things like slow, deep breaths and progressive muscle relaxation.
  6. Try slowing your mind down with meditation.  There are numerous meditation apps that will guide you through a relaxing meditation that will help slow your thoughts down and let you fall asleep. • I know!  I just said to turn off screens before bed!  For meditation apps you would only be listening, not looking.  Turn off the screen while you listen.  It’s the blue light from the screens that affects sleep.•
  7. Environmental support.  Make sure your room is as dark as you like it and a good temperature for sleeping.  Also, some people like to listen to soft music or use nature sounds/white noise machines to help with sleep.  Further enhance relaxation with a lavender eye pillow or an essential oil diffuser.
  8. Supplements.  There are some studies showing that melatonin and valerian root MAY help with insomnia, although the research is limited and some studies are inconclusive.  Seek medical advice before starting any supplement.
  9. Finally, if you or someone you are caring for continues to struggle with insomnia, consider a sleep study.  These interventions look at sleep patterns throughout the night to help determine potential factors affecting sleep, including more significant sleep disorders.


*There has been some attention lately to controlled sleep deprivation as a treatment for depression.  This post is not meant to address sleep deprivation as a treatment but to look at ways to help improve sleep.