Exploring sleep with Laura Hellfeld & Kate Kleinau

Does this sound familiar for your household?

Bedtime refusal, frequent night wakings, night terrors, extreme early rising.

Image of a nursery room with off-white walls and light wood floors. A black painted baby crib is up against a wall and has a blue blanket hanging off the side. There is a yellow book basket next to the crib.
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

Our Lightbulb Moment

Just recently, Laura and I had a lightbulb moment discovering that we had near identical experiences navigating sleep differences with our neurodivergent kids.

In our kids’ early years, we both tried all sorts of strategies and were perhaps holding onto the societal belief that kids should sleep in their own bed, in their own room.

What were we doing?

You name it, we tried it…

· Rigid night routines

· Strict bedtimes

· White noise

· Different types of bedding/sleep bags

· Moving bedtime later or earlier to try to reduce wakings and encourage sleeping in later.

· Strict elimination diets to manage food intolerances.

· Clocks that change colour when it’s time to wake up.

· Social stories around bedtime and sleeping in their own room

· Feeling like we were failing as we rocked and bounced our kids to sleep or utilised the pram and car for naps.

· In desperation we both ended up at sleep school and were encouraged to implement hugely traumatic routines that just didn’t sit right, and we couldn’t adhere to.

What was happening?

We were getting stuck in a vicious cycle where we were removing co-regulation and our children’s sense of safety, which was escalating the stress response in their nervous systems and actually increasing their need for more co-regulation!

Maya Angelou’s quote is quite fitting “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

The AHA!

The conclusion that we both came to is that we have to accept our children’s natural sleep patterns and honour that the need for co-regulation doesn’t go away at night-time.

We now know, that for our kids, disruptions to sleep are all signs of extreme exhaustion, anxiety and nervous system overwhelm.

What works for Kate…

Now days, at our house, the whole family is getting the best sleep we’ve had in years. It isn’t perfect and is probably a far cry from what you would read in any parenting books, but it is a system that works for us and our 5-year-old Autistic PDAer.

· We have a loose wind down routine that happens at the pace our PDAer chooses: games in his room, toilet, brush teeth, books in bed.

· We provide 1:1 child-led play to make sure his connection cup is full.

· We meet his sensory needs, this means including games that provide lots of lovely body awareness input into the wind down to get his body in a state conducive to sleep. Things like playfully lying on top of each other, play wrestling with soft toys or pretending he is a baby bird hatching out of a stretchy lycra body sock.

· We use pretend play to ease transitions. Recently, our last game has been pretending that he is a lost baby that gets rescued and tucked up safely in his cosy bed. If he doesn’t fall asleep while we are reading, we have a turning off the light game where we pretend the light it is a candle, and he sneezes to blow it out!

· We don’t worry about changing into pyjamas, he just sleeps in his day clothes.

· My husband and I take turns co-sleeping to reduce anxiety which makes going to sleep easier, it minimises night wakings and helps him to sleep in later.

· We have a set up that works for us. Our PDAer is a very restless sleeper so we have a queen-sized bed and separate bedding to minimise disruption to our sleep.

· A normal wake up for us know is around 5/5:30am. We have shifted our mindset to embrace the quietness of early starts, adjusted our bedtime accordingly, and get to watch the sunrise together most days.

Hazy image of a young child sleeping in bed. The child is sleeping on their back and facing away from the camera. The child has short, dark hair, is wearing a yellow top and has a grey blanket.
Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

What works for Laura…

We realized that with stepping outside of the standard version of ‘bedtime’, that our family was able to get more sleep. Importantly, we now feel a greater sense of ease in the evening as we’ve tuned into what our kids needs are versus what we thought we should be doing.

· The kiddos have book lights and books. That way they have those ‘bonus’ stories to look forward to and they get into bed for an activity other than sleep.

· Baths and showers right before bed had all of us in a tizzy. Now if my kids have a shower, it’s much earlier in the day or just skipped. A wash cloth really can work wonders.

· One kiddo likes PJs and the other is so much happier without which it totally ok.

· A friend of mine used the term ‘musical beds’ some years ago and I’ve been using that image to have a positive take on how my younger one can seem to be testing out different sleep situations in a night.

· My two kids love to share a room. I was hesitant about this for months before we sprang for bedbunks. My spouse and I worried that our younger one would keep our other kid up. Turns out though, that the younger one sleeps so much more having that big sibling nearby and we haven’t had too much issue.

· We have ongoing conversations with our kids that it’s totally ok to come to us in the night.

· We also have ongoing discussions to normalize how other people wake up in the night to find a family member and that it’s ok.

· My kids have a big need to get one last burst of energetic movement just before sleep. We are often wrestling or doing an obstacle course.

· We are totally ok with our kids using screens as a regulating tool and they enjoy some shows and chill out time on the couch shortly before heading up to their rooms.

· My kids go to school and it can take a while for their systems to wind down and feel hunger. Therefore, food and snacks are free going up until they go to bed. They have ‘last snack’ and ‘last last snack’ and ‘oh yeah, one more last last last snack’.

· Both of mine find drinking from a straw quite regulating and they each have a water bottle at the bedside.

· The activities involved in each night’s bedtime routine vary widely. Sometimes we read, sometimes it’s listening to a guided meditation and sometimes it’s more wrestling. We go with the flow and see what their needs are.

In Conclusion:

What you might notice in the lists above, is that there is some overlap in the strategies to help our kids sleep. There are also some strategies that work better in one of our homes versus the other.

We’ve come to realize that the approach to supporting PDAers with sleep is really quite unique to the young person and family.

There is no one right way to approach sleep and bedtime.

As we tune in with our kids’ needs, we can more naturally create ways to all get a better night’s sleep.

What strategies have you found work best for your PDAer and family? We’d love to hear.

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