Your child used to fall asleep at a regular time in the evening and wake up every morning at the same time. Suddenly, this changes abruptly, it becomes difficult to settle him to sleep, and, when he or she is finally asleep, this child seems restless, turns in his or her bed, and wakes up crying in the middle of the night, maybe two or three times per night. He or she wakes up much earlier in a very bad mood and the whole family schedule is disturbed, everyone is tired and you wonder what could cause this sudden change.
A sudden change in sleep patterns which were set for several months is signaling that something needs attention and you want to lead a quest to find out the cause. Hoping that time and endurance will make everything better sometimes work, but it is wiser to act as soon as the problem continues for more than three days.
What are the physiological causes for sleep disturbances?
We may want to look first at the simplest cause which is also the simplest to resolve: hunger.
Children grow in spurts and this child who was satisfied with a cup of soup, a toast and a yogurt may now have more important needs. If your child is non verbal or has communication issues of other forms, such as in PDD where the child can speak but can’t express, this child will not come to you and say
I am still hungry, can I have a boiled egg with some cucumber and celery?
In a dream world which does not exist, children, or adults for that matter, do know exactly the amount of calories and the type of minerals or nutrients their body needs. In the real world, the child is not really aware of hunger and will try to fall asleep while discomfort rises and the brain remains alert, sending messages such as:
Feed me now!
Because it is such a simple problem, you may not need to run a battery of tests and measurements of grams and centimeters. Add a portion of food to the dinner, or give an evening snack to your child. Chances are that if your child eats that food, it is because there was a need. If sleep returns to normal, you had a very simple problem.
2. Aches and pains
Some aches are more intense or more noticeable when laying down, headache, tooth ache, gut pain, growing pain. Again, a non communicative child will not come to your room and ask for a pain management pill.
Once you have done the food trial and it has not solved the problem, really, simultaneously, you investigate teeth, warmth of the forehead, redness of the ears, tenderness of the belly, of the joints.
Does your child relax if you give a warm and soft massage of the legs, calf, knee and ankle?
Take first the measures that do not involve medication, a massage may be the solution to a particular type of pain.
If this is not helping at all, go to your medicine cabinet and pick one child pain relief medicine you have used before and administer a safe dose. Growing teeth are extremely painful but may not show in the mouth. An aspirin family pain relief is usually safe, and you may give a call to the Health Link in you have one in your area to take advice from a nurse.
An otherwise healthy child won’t suffer side effects with a child dose of pain relief, and it would be terrible if the cause for the disturbance is a pain that can be managed while the problem gradually disappears, such a the growth of the tooth, or an unusual head ache caused by change of weather.
Many of the children on the spectrum are extremely sensitive to change in atmospheric pressure and will suffer headaches which they can’t explain in words. Ensure to have a barometer in the house to verify atmospheric pressure changes. Wind is a head ache precursor, change of amount of daylight is also a factor.
Children with neurological disorders can start a long term headache with one trigger which is gone while the headache remains.
3. Digestive problem
This is rarely a long lasting problem which is why I encourage action only after three days of the sleep disturbance, while you are trying the less complicated measures.
Children can develop allergies or digestive issues as they grow and become aversive to one food which did not cause a problem before. You can verify this by simply changing the kind of food you offer for dinner, if your child is happy with change, which rarely is the case unfortunately.
4. Noises that he only can hear?
Because your child is certainly more sensitive to sounds that the rest of the family, he or she may be disturbed by a new route of bus in the close area, the start of a baseball season three blocks away, a new puppy barking often, down the street.
The change in environment that can cause sleep disturbances is certainly a problem that you can’t solve easily. You may need to stay up at night and listen to the outside sounds when your child wakes up. It may be faint and distant, but if you notice the correlation, you have something to work with.
The solution is to bring into your child’s room a white noise small device.
You would have to leave it on during the day so that the white noise does not become a nuisance in itself. You can start by putting it in the hallway at night, see how comfortable you child is with it. A small table fan can do the trick if you ensure to position it in a way that it won’t blow on the child.
5. Night seizures
Certainly the most serious cause for sleep disturbances and not one that you want to discard.
Children on the spectrum often develop seizure activity. The seizure can be extremely short but wake the child and cause head ache.
The only way to know besides running a 24 h EEG, which is hard to obtain from the neurologist and hard to implement, is to sleep in your child’s bed and observe :
- a sudden jerk, similar to the jerk every one has when the brain starts its sleep process
- a sudden stiffness and rigid posture
- a change in breathing pace, accelerated for a few sends
- a repetitive motion of one hand, arm, leg or foot
- unusual sound (moaning, heaving, mumbling, etc) seeming to be coming out of a dream
We promote the use of a strawberry scent and the application of ice protocol when you witness a seizure. I also recommend that in doubt you continue your observation over five to six nights, with a note pad, writing the hour, the duration, the apparance, then consult with your family doctor.
Nightmares do disturb the happy sleep and are part of normal development, even in a child on the spectrum. it is hard to differentiate nightmares reactions, waking up panting, in tears, and a seizure which would sometimes lead to the same reaction.
The main difference is that nightmares do not occur systematically, and they seldom occur at the same time of the night.
In conclusion, when sleep is disturbed, take action, for yourself as well as for your child. Vigilance and objective observation will help, keeping in charge and loving will lead to success.
6. One final tip: A scent while you sleep
A drop of his favourite smell on his pillow before he goes to sleep. It can be lavender essential oil, or anything he or she loves. Whatever the reason for poor sleep, this simple technique is bound to help him and YOU sleep much more soundly and feel much more refreshed in the morning.
A fragrance diffuser will not work as well as a drop on the pillow case, because the diffuser sends fragrance in the air evenly and constantly. What you want is intermittent stimulation of the olfactory bulb. Makes sense?
Any questions? Do you have a tip to share with the readers? Did I miss anything among the possible causes? Do you need extra help with sleep?
Post a comment, I read all of them personally.