Helping Your ADHD/ASD Child Find Sleep

Helping Your ADHD/ASD Child Find Sleep

As a person on spectrum, I spent most of my years struggling with sleep and bedtime. I would often lay in my bed 4 hours trying to fall asleep. If I woke up sometime in the night, it was almost impossible for me to fall back asleep.

Since I was undiagnosed until my late 40s, my struggles were Largely dismissed as anxiety. It was only after I'd begun working extensively with children at the neural linguistic Learning Center then I began to see a pattern of sleep issues among ADHD end ASD children.

So, as part of my work in helping this group of children overcome other issues related to education, behavior, and social struggles, it naturally fell upon us 2 help these children with their sleep issues. Fortunately, we did have success in this area and several patterns emerged.

The first thing we noticed was the importance of routine for this group of children. Our programs for ADHD and ASD children almost always include three specific routines: a wake up routine or morning routine; an after school/homework routine; and a bedtime routine.

Bedtime Routine

Almost every parent of an ADHD or ASD child knows the importance of routine. Routine provides a sense of knowing, a sense of comfort, sense of safety. This sense of comfort is very important to achieving a state of mind conducive to falling asleep.

Routine also works with the child's natural desire for completion—to feel a sense of success by completing a given task. Some parents may notice that once a child starts a routine that they are accustomed to it's almost imperative that they be allowed to complete that routine or task.

In this way, we're taking the child's natural inclinations to feel safe and comfortable, and to complete familiar routines, and we’re using them to the child's advantage.

So, before we talk about specific techniques, the context within which these sleep assistance techniques occur is a consistent bedtime routine.

My own preference, and what seems to work fairly consistently for most children is a 5 or 6 step bedtime routine. An example of a simple bedtime routine might be:

  1. taking a bath
  2. putting on PJ's
  3. brushing our teeth
  4. a glass of water
  5. reading/story time
  6. lights out.

Now, we can't expect miracles. Depending on the child it might take a week, a month, or 6 months to fully establish the bedtime routine. The key is consistency. The bedtime routine can't be just sometimes it has to be every night with almost without exception. When away from home, or on vacation, we still need to maintain the bedtime routine. When school is in session when school is out of session we still need to maintain the bedtime routine.


It is critical that the steps or content of the routine never vary. Step 2 must follow step one, step 3 follow Step 2, and so on to the completion of the routine.

We can adjust the routine with respect to time or timing. For example, we can adjust the length of the bath to be 5 minutes or 10 minutes. Our story time can be 10 minutes or 15 minutes.

We can also vary within reason the timing of the beginning of the bedtime routine. During the school year, on school nights, we may begin the bedtime routine at 8:30. In the summertime. we may push that bedtime back to 9:00 o'clock. For young children, we probably don't want to be adjusting the bedtime for weekdays and weekends if possible.

The point is the duration of each task can vary, within reason, and the start of the routine can vary but the order of the routine must not change.

Remember to keep it simple and successful. Keep each task something simple and clearly defined. Again, the whole idea is to link each task together in sequence so completion of the routine becomes an unconscious driving force to assist the child in finding that “space” to go to sleep.

I highly recommend that reading, story time be the last step before lights out. Reading to a child is a bonding experience. Listening to a story engages the imagination. Most children naturally feel comforted by the sound of their parent’s voice.

When the lights go out (with or without a nightlight), there are a variety of exercises than can assist in the transition from a waking state to sleep.

Matched Breathing

Matched Breathing is a great technique for helping a child shift their physiology from one state (waking) to another (sleeping). It can be used at other times for its calming effect.

The key is using some subtle physical contact to “transmit” the breathing pattern of the adult to the child. After making safe physical contact (hand on the back, shoulder to shoulder, etc.) match the child’s breathing pattern for 2-5 minutes. [Note: for children under 3 years old, we seem to get better results with the adult breathing at half the rate of the child.]

At some point, you may or may not feel a slight flushing of the face or a warmth on the back of the neck. This is a GOOD! It is a sign of physiological rapport.

After matching the child’s breathing for 2-5 minutes, begin slowing your breathing little by little. It doesn’t hurt to slightly exaggerate the breathing motion. We want a relaxed deep breathing from the belly, keeping the shoulders relaxed.

As part of our bedtime routine, Matched Breathing can help many children reach that safe, relaxed feeling, so helpful to achieving a restful asleep.

Background Music / White Noise

For some children, the complete lack of sensory stimulation can be very unnerving. Background Music and White Noise can help fill in that sensory void between lights out and falling asleep.

A slight twist on background music and white noise is using specialized audio tracks that add binaural beats in the background. Sometimes referred to as brain entrainment, the brain will often synchronize to these hidden rhythms to facilitate various states of consciousness, including creative, relaxed, excited, and sleep.

Audio Books

For older children, audio books can take the place of music or white noise. My personal preference are books or stories the child has already heard or read, but new books are also ok if not too exciting. As always, it depends on the child.

What we’re looking for is something to fill that awful sensory void. I have several audio books that I’ve listened to dozens of times. I’ve listened to some parts of the movie “Dune” over 1,000 times.  

Melatonin, L-tryptophan, and Nutritional Supplements

The basic rule of thumb for most supplements is they are effective when the body, for whatever reason, is deficient in that specific supplement.

Supplements can interact with medications in unpredictable ways and everyone’s physiology is different. Before you try any nutritional supplement on a child always consult their Doctor or Mental Health Professional. It is also recommended that you establish and document a baseline routine and sleep pattern before introducing any new supplements.  

Valerian, Lavender and Other Essential Oils

 Essential oils can interact with medications in unpredictable ways and everyone’s physiology is different. Before you try any essential oil on a child always consult their Doctor or Mental Health Professional. It is also recommended that you establish and document a baseline routine and sleep pattern before introducing any essential oils.  

Essential oils can be extremely potent. Always be cautious when applying essential oils directly to the skin or taking internally. Generally speaking, a safer way to administer essential oils is via a diffuser.

At the Neuro-linguistic Learning Center, we maintained a very subtle scent of lavender in the office. The scent was not to intended to induce a physical response. Rather its use was to act as an emotional ‘anchor’ to assist the child in more readily re-enter the relaxed state of mind that we called, “the Learning State”.  

Directed Dreaming

Directed Dreaming is the simple act of giving the mind an interesting and pleasant question upon which to focus. The question is often posed after lights out as part of a short (one or two paragraph) discussion. The best questions are open-ended, are of interest to the child, and engage the imagination. For example: “What a great story. I wonder what it would be like to swim with mermaids and dolphins?”

Diet and Exercise

Diet and Exercise can have a profound effect on sleep patterns. Some children need more daily exercise than others. Many ADHD and ASD children are especially sensitive to certain foods and additives. Again, it is almost always useful to keep a basic log of diet and exercise to establish and document a baseline of moods and behaviors and hopefully notice any patterns or sudden changes.

Speaking as a parent, I’ve never found the “let them wear themselves out” idea to ever work. I’ve always worn myself out long before the kids.

That said, most children spend considerable time ‘confined’ and quiet so providing time for them to ‘get their wiggles out’ can be a healthy practice and a welcome relief.

A word on TV and Video Games

Many ADHD and ASD children LOVE their video games. They are engaging to the senses, can be a vehicle for experiencing success and self-expression.

That said, most popular video games are very stimulating to the Autonomic Nervous System. It can take a child three hours to fully ‘decompress’ from one hour of TV or video games.

Generally speaking, the younger the child the greater the effect of media. It’s not uncommon to see Kindergarten children in school acting out scenes from tv shows or movies they saw the night before.

Again, every child is unique, and every family is different. Judgment and common sense need to be the watchwords.

Sensory Program

Obviously, all of these strategies and techniques will occur in the context of the child’s whole life and being. At the NLC, the program for every ADHD and ASD child included daily Sensory Integration and Stress Reduction exercises.

Over and over with our ADHD and ASD students, we found a daily Sensory Program key to success in virtually every area of life. Whether we’re looking at academic improvement, social success, or behavior issues, there is typically no comparison between the results achieved with and without a Sensory Program. In short, address a child’s sensory needs and their behavior follows.

I hope this brief and general look at sleep and sleep aids has been helpful to some. Again, every child is unique, and I encourage all parents to seek out support for your child and yourself. The Neuro-linguistic Learning is committed to providing support to neurodiverse children and their families. Feel free to contact us with any questions.

  • Tags: adhd, anxiety, autism, education, Gerald Hughes, Neuro-linguistic Learning Center, parenting, sleep, stress, Sympathetic Nervous System

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.