Most adults always anticipate the “fall back” into daylight savings time because for many it means an extra hour of clubbing, watching movies or hanging out with friends due to the extra hour of sleep gained that night (actually Sunday morning at 3am). However, those of us with children, especially those like myself who have children with special needs, the event is not a time of anticipation but of dread….
For many children and families with special needs, sleep is problematic. In order to achieve sleep, one must be able to self regulate, meaning
having the ability to regulate or control their emotions, thoughts, focus and behaviors.
Many children with special needs have deficits in this area leading to their issues with sleep.
In children with autism in particular, the time change can be even more problematic. For children in the spectrum, routines or rituals are highly valued. A breakdown or change in these routines can often cause high levels of anxiety and displays of socially unacceptable behaviors. Therefore the changes in time are very difficult for the child with autism to adjust too. It leaves the individual feeling anxious and out of control of their own daily environment. Unfortunately, the change of time does not only affect their sleep, but their appetite, their attention span, mood and behavior.
All children, even neurotypical ones (fancy word for normal) can often find the time change challenging. Young children through school age are continuously developing their sleep routines and patterns. However your neurotypical child will adjust to the time change within a couple of days to a week. Some children with special needs, especially those with Autism may need weeks or even months to adjust to the change.
Because of their need for structure and routine, the biggest challenge is centered around the amount of time it stays daylight and the amount of time it stays dark. For instance, it normally is daylight during supper and now it is dark, or it may possibly be dark for several hours before bedtime leaving the child confused.
In order to help meet these challenges here are 7 Strategies I would recommend for any child but especially those with special needs, those who function best within a routine and those who are on the spectrum.
1. Prepare the child for the change. Explain the setting back or moving forward of the clock. Discuss how it will be getting darker sooner or staying light longer, and how it might affect their schedule. Such as limit their time playing outside etc.
2. Use a social story to depict the changes. Social stories are an excellent resource to use with any kid. It’s like a road map or vacation pamphlet that tells you all you need to know about a subject in story form. Make sure your story is individualized fir your child. For instance, if you normally pick your child up from daycare at 5:45 and its been daylight, you will need to address in your story, that now it will be dark…. The failure to address this could cause major insecurities in the life of your little one…
I remember a few years ago, Kris and I were both working and Will was at home after school with a caregiver… We had told him that morning if he was good we would go out to eat. We normally get home between 5:30 and 6:00 before the time had fallen back it was always daylight. But that day was after the time change and therefore it was dark. Will screamed and cried from the time it go dark until we were home. I’m sure in his mind, he thought we had missed our chance to go out to eat….. Just goes to show why preparing your child is so important.
3. Carry on normal bedtime routine at the normal time. Although as parents we often want to hurry through this process keeping it consistent is best. We sometimes fall into the trap of giving baths earlier because of outside play time being cut short. Do not!!! All routines should stay the same and at the same time despite your activities or lack thereof. Providing a consistent routine gives your child a safety net making them feel calm , safe and secure.
Two of Will’s favorite bedtime activities have always been rocking with mama and having Daddy carry him to bed. Unfortunately now that he is about 5’4 1/2 and 185lbs neither of these bedtime favorites can occur nightly…
4. Begin a few days or a week in advance adjusting bed time, night time or morning time. This should be done in small increments of about 10-15 minutes. This will get the child’s body used to the new schedule, without it being a noticeable difference.
5. Set boundaries for child. If your child has a tendency to get up before daylight, set the rule that he or she can’t come out of their room until its daylight. Or perhaps it is no drinks after 7:00 pm or no electronics after 8:00pm.
Will loves to come and get in the bed with his daddy and I and snuggle which is great at 6:30 am. Not so great at 4:30 or 5:00. So we set the boundary of him not getting in bed with us until 6:30. He knows what it looks like and knows he can’t until then…. Parents…… The best thing you can do for yourself and your child is learn to set boundaries!!!
6. Research has shown that exercise aides in the body accepting the time change. Keeping your child busy throughout the day will help them feel tired and more accepting of bedtime…. Sometimes it means falling asleep before bedtime and in the most unlikely places or positions.
7. The last strategy and most likely the most important one is the parents must get a goodnights sleep… I’m sure your shaking your head right now saying yeah right Brandi, hows that supposed to happen. Glad you asked…… For married folks… Trade off…. One night mom gets up and soothes, coaxes, threatens, entertains, the next night dad does. Or if your child is like Will and wants only one parent then I highly suggest one night every week the spouses each take a turn spending a night away from home…. Where? A hotel, a friend’s house, parents, in-laws, or neighbors…. Why is this important? Because it will provide consistency to your child. If both parents are exhausted neither will be in the frame of mind to handle, work with, discipline or remain consistent. In order to develop a new pattern of sleep consistency is the key.
Now, for those of you who are single mothers or fathers, or your spouse or significant other works nights or out-of-town. You must enlist the help of others. Call upon your friends, family, neighbors or caregivers. Invite them to stay the night and “Be on call” per say if the child awakens leaving you to sleep.
I can’t stress how important this is. I found myself in a very dangerous situation this summer due to the lack of sleep and pure exhaustion. Like me, many of you are in the same boat. I felt guilty for staying the night away from home to rest. But quickly realized I was not meeting my child’s or the rest of my families needs when running on zero. After some rest I was a much better mother, wife and person!