J and sleep are not two words that have ever gone well together. As a baby he never slept through, in fact he rarely slept more than a few hours at a time. When he was nine months old the health visitor recommended putting him in his own bedroom as we could be disturbing each other and causing this cycle. Well it made no difference, it just meant I had to walk further to comfort him. Things got better nearer 2 years but then came the removal of the cot and that brought a whole new heap of issues. I decided to research environments and bedroom ideas on the internet. I rearranged the bedroom and thought carefully about what went in it.
Now J is 3 and although he still doesn’t sleep through every night, he does have a lot more good nights than bad. He now goes to bed at 7.00pm (but doesn’t go to sleep till 7.30) and gets out of bed at 7.30am (although is awake anytime from 7am). I think its a combination of an established routine and a calming bedroom.
Although I am writing from the perspective of a parent of a child with autism I don’t think all of the difficulties J has had with night times are uncommon for a lot of children so I hope this is helpful to everyone. Autism causes several issues for us:
- Lack of danger awareness
- Need for routine and clear boundaries
- Social communication difficulties
- Sensory needs
So when I arranged J’s bedroom I needed to bare these in mind. Here’s what I did…
I used natural colours for J’s bedroom. I did a lot of reading on the effects of colour. It’s amazing how some bright colours can encourage a bit too much energy eg: Red is very intense and can cause excitement (not ideal for bedtime). Whereas as others such as blues can be tranquil and calming. I went for the neutral colours which give the illusion of space (J’s room is quite small) and is less distracting. There’s minimal decoration on the wall so there’s not so much to distract J when he should be sleeping.
J likes to have spaces to hide. He gets comfort from being enclosed in things so he has a tent to hide in, pillows on the bed to pile on top if himself and spare blankets at the end of the bed to create a ‘weighted’ feeling. You’ll also notice that J’s bed is raised quite high at one end. This is because J has asthma. He struggles the most at nights/early mornings so having it raised helps him to breath easier, especially if his wheezing or gunky.
J has his dresser strategically placed next to his bed and under this shelf because J likes plugs and switches. We needed to cover them so he cant access them. J has a Gro-Clock which has been a big part of J’s routine. It is a visual to show him when he is expected to be quiet and asleep, and when it is acceptable to wake Mummy and Daddy up. The dresser makes sure he cant get to the cable. The shelf has his medication on too. Its high enough that he cant reach but we can reach the medicine such as his inhaler quickly and easily. I don’t put any toys of interest to J on the shelf. This is to avoid tempting J to climb up and possibly hurt himself.
There is a lullaby bee on his dresser. This is another part of his routine each night. J is very sensory based and so the use of the lights and lullaby help to calm J and relax him ready for bed. It also distracts him away from any outside noises. If J wakes up in the night we put the lights and lullabies back on and J will fall back to sleep (relatively) easily. He likes the red light which as I found through reading research paper, is actually quite common. The red spectrum can help with melatonin production which is needed for good sleep. There’s apparently too much blue in modern bulbs which can cause problems with sleep cycles so all that time under the lights in the living room, bathroom and landing before getting into bed could be making it harder for J to settle.
One of the most important things about J’s bedroom is the fact it is a BEDROOM. It’s not a play room or a store room for his million toys. I want J to have a clear boundary between play and sleep. By encouraging J’s bedroom to be less cluttered and with carefully planned toys it means he is less likely to get over stimulated at bedtime. It has definitely worked. He rarely gets out of bed, and when he does it’s usually to grab a book or quiet toy and get back into bed. We do spend time in J’s room. He often comes up whilst I’m doing cleaning or getting myself ready. The toys I chose for J’s room are:
- Book corner with soft cushions (he can choose his own books to look at)
- Wooden dinosaur land (there were wooden dinosaurs too but he would bang them against the wall so for the safe of my sanity and the neighbours we switched them to the soft plastic dinosaurs instead).
- Wooden toys such as cars and blocks are in the storage unit (wooden toys are more calming as there’s no buttons or gadgets to fiddle with and cause over stimulation. Wooden toys are also more ‘weighted’ and so from a sensory point of view it helps ground J).
- Soft toys (again, these are quiet toys and encourage J to snuggle down and relax. Some are weighted beanies, again to help with J’s sensory needs and others are just lovely and soft).
- Educational posters (I chose these to help build J’s vocabulary. He loves to ask me what things are, and now he’s older he can name the pictures himself. On the other wall he has a shapes and colour poster).
He has a car mat on the floor so he can play with his cars and blocks but its less distracting than a bright colourful play mat. J is welcome to get up and play in the mornings, he’s just not allowed to start the day until his gro clock sunshine comes on. I often wake up hearing him making car noises, using his blocks as spaceships, or reading to himself.
Natural light is important for children (and adults). However, in the summer months natural light at bedtime is not as helpful, so we use a Gro-blind for those early morning sunrises. But during the day its great to have as much light in the room as possible. I keep the window sill clear from toys and distraction (just his teddy he’s had since he was born) to discourage J from wanting to climb up and explore. The heater cover acts as extra bit of security so J cant climb up, as well as stopping him from hurting himself on the heater when its on. J has very little danger awareness and this is something that does scare the life out of me. He is the sort of child to try to climb things, pull things down to get to them and not even think of the consequences. I have to make sure the room is as danger free as possible. Places he could possibly climb have to have barriers eg: boxes on shelves so no ‘free space’ climb on his wardrobe or dresser.
We have a video monitor set up in J’s room so that when he is awake in his room we can see what he is doing. This means he gets his independent time (and we get to lay in bed longer) but can be kept an eye on. J struggles with social communication. Basically he can talk, he has the words. He just need support to direct that speech to others. He will happily chat away to himself, but actually he’s talking to an adult or requesting help. But unless you are really listening then you wouldn’t know it…until he’s decided to get whatever it was himself, or do whatever it was he was requesting, or he’ll get upset and approach meltdown. Having the monitor means we can respond to J and give him the reminder to come and speak to us or get his symbol cards (yes, its a two way monitor so that can be done from wherever we are).
Lastly, this is the one room that I insist is kept tidied and organised. J helps to tidy up after he’s played and before bed. Everything is reset each day so it is ready for bedtime routine. J needs the routine to stay the same and distractions of toys being out, blankets and pillows not being ready can put him off enough that he will have a bad night, which leads to a challenging next day.
Not only is it important for J to get a good nights sleep, but its important for myself and Daddy. Daddy needs to be up for work and to have the energy to be productive. Mummy has M.E and so sleep is a big part of my health. Happy J, happy family all round.
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