ABA Therapy and Sleep

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For any child with special needs, getting the treatments needed for development and health is crucial.  In order for them to have the best opportunities to thrive, parents like you are determined to get their child the services that they so desperately need.

One common therapy many kids with autism receive is ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. 

It is designed to help children to grow and improve their abilities for learning, communication, and social skills.  As beneficial as it can be for some children, it can really throw off normal sleep patterns.

Why does it affect sleep?

First, ABA therapy is intensive.  Children as young as 3 years old may receive 20 hours, 30 hours, and more every week.  That’s nearly a full time job!  With school, daycare, or additional therapies, that many hours would leave anyone feeling exhausted.

And, having to stay focused that long burns a lot more energy than we realize. If your child has any issues with sensory processing on top of that, it can easily lead to overtiredness at the end of the day. This can make it harder for your child to fall asleep at the beginning of the night.

Secondly, because of the individualized approach, ABA can be helpful in “speeding up” the development in areas that are lacking. Often, parents will say that when starting ABA they notice big leaps in their child’s language skills.

However, when these big leaps happen it can lead to long spells of being up at night. Your child might be up for 2, 3 or more hours babbling to themselves, running around their room, or feeling “disregulated”.

Although this blog is specific to ABA, you may find this happening with any therapy your child is doing! As important as it is that your child’s growing brain gets all the exercise and stimulation it needs, it will absolutely throw off a good sleep pattern.

We can’t stop ABA, but we’re exhausted!

So, how do you make sure that your child is getting the rest they need while keeping an intense ABA schedule? Here’s my top recommendations to make sure your child is getting the best of both worlds:

Make bedtime earlier

When starting ABA, increasing hours, or when your child’s ABA therapist changes, one of the best things you can do for your child is get them to bed early. This will allow them to get ahead of any overtiredness until they are used to the new schedule. Once your child’s sleep as settled and they’re into a fairly regular routine, bedtime can go back the usual time, if needed.

Wind down time before bed

Because of all the stimulation your child may get with ABA, make sure that at least 1 hour before bed things are nice and calm. Try to avoid screens, and work in tactile play as much as possible. Even if your child doesn’t have a lot of seeking or avoiding behavior, this can help them feel more calm and relaxed.

In addition, stretching, massage, or breathing exercises can be helpful for your child. It’s a great way for your child to let go of any built up stress from a long day’s work! I love joint compression massage for this exact reason. Or, try some yoga with your child, which is a good option for stretching and calming breathing.

With such a busy day, it’s important to give your child routine when they’re at home. When they’re settled in their home environment, it will be easier to get to sleep. Make sure to always have a consistent bedtime routine laid out for your child.

Start the day off on the right foot

Unfortunately, there are still going to be a handful of nights that are less than ideal. So, it’s important that when your child hasn’t had the best night’s sleep that they start with their best foot forward the next day.

Make sure to have a simple, easy morning routine to follow. Having that predictability going into the day sets them up to better handle the unexpected and to start the day confidently — even if they’re not feeling their best. This should include the basics of getting dressed, having breakfast, etc. You can also try a confidence boosting mantra to say each morning before you leave the house!

Get out for a little walk, if you can

Walking is not here to get your child to burn even more energy. Walking actually helps to regulate breathing and reduce stress. More importantly, it helps the brain get ready to burn the midnight oil, so to speak!

A little 15-20 minute walk after school or dinner is a great way to get ready for a good night’s sleep. Try to avoid really high-energy physical activity in the evening hours.

Finally, give as much one-on-one time after the bustle of the day is over!

After a busy day at ABA (and school, and OT…) your child deserves lots of one on one time with their number 1 fan – you! Try your best to do fun, quiet time activities where they can be really successful. After a long day of work, your child deserves lot of rewarding play and cuddle time with you!