Many children with autism have difficulty going to sleep in their own beds. It’s not uncommon for children to sleep in the same bed as their parents—it provides comfort to be right next to those who provide love and care. However, as they grow older, it’s more appropriate for children to eventually learn to sleep in their own bed.
Getting your child to sleep in his own bed involves making some specific adjustments to his evening routine in order to reduce his activity level. If possible, food should not be consumed for at least an hour prior to bedtime. The evening routine should be consistent, which includes asking the child to lie in his own bed at a certain time each night. When the child gets into bed, close or dim the light and make sure that the room is quiet. For instance, the TV, tablet, etc. should now be powered off.
Once the conditions for falling asleep are in place, it’s likely that the child will want the adult to remain next to him or even to lie beside him in his bed. We strongly caution parents against lying in his bed with him—if he falls asleep, it will be very difficult to get out of his bed without waking him up. If he were to wake up, you would have to start all over! To avoid this outcome, we recommend sitting on the floor, directly next to his bed.
Once the child is lying in bed with you beside him (on the floor), tell him it’s time to go to sleep and that you want him to close his eyes and lie still. You want him to lie calmly in his bed and reinforce him for doing so. This might include rubbing his head or chest while saying, “Thank you for lying down” every few seconds. As the child lies down and stays calm for longer periods of time, the rate of giving feedback and rubbing his chest or head can be decreased. This process should be implemented until the child falls asleep.
Teaching this skill rarely goes smoothly at first. Sometimes the child will sit up and/or try to get out of bed. When this happens, gently prevent him from sitting or getting up and instruct him to lie down and remain still. For example, you can say, “It’s time to go to sleep, you need to lie down and be still.” Be sure that when he complies, you praise his behavior and rub his chest/head (if that helps to keep him lying still) at a higher rate. As he lies calmly in bed, the rate can be decreased until he falls asleep.
While this process can take a lot of time, depending on how long it takes the child to fall asleep, implementing these procedures consistently can help to improve the likelihood that the child will be able to sleep in his bed each night. Over time, as the child becomes better with falling asleep with the parent right next to him, the parent should try moving slightly away from the child’s bed. The parent can occasionally go over to the bed and provide words of praise and maybe the occasional head rub or chest rub.
As the child displays comfort with the parent being close by, but not directly next to him (and is able to fall asleep easily and consistently), the parent can systematically begin to move farther and farther away until he or she is able to sit in the doorway as the child attempts to fall asleep. The last step is to crack the door and sit outside of the child’s room.
The goal of the above procedure is to strengthen the targeted behaviors of lying still and closing his eyes and to gradually fade out, so that the adult no longer has to remain right next to the child as he attempts to fall asleep.
This is a basic strategy that may prove helpful for this specific situation. For a more elaborative explanation of this procedure, or for addressing problem behaviors that may arise, we recommend the book, Success on the Spectrum: How to Teach Skills to Individuals with Autism.