‘I’ve tried EVERTYHING… but my child doesn’t sleep’
I read and hear this statement constantly.
And I’m often tempted to dive deep into that conversation, because there are many who do believe that removing gluten for three days and trying some essential oils with block out curtains = ‘trying everything’ and #sorrynotsorry but I seriously disagree.
Let me give you an illustration. I read a long time ago an article about breastfeeding. The crux of it was that mothers were deciding that breastfeeding was ‘too hard’ or ‘too tiring’ or ‘too restrictive’ and deciding to stop. Unfortunately, many of these mothers then spend the next few weeks telling everyone that they stopped breastfeeding because they ‘didn’t have enough milk’.
Now this post has nothing to do with breastfeeding so let’s not go down that rabbit hole….
The point I want to make is this: WORDS MATTER. If it becomes a common occurrence for mothers to state their body doesn’t produce enough milk – then it becomes common place for other mothers to believe that this is a widespread issue, leading to more mothers believing they weren’t producing enough milk and also giving up breastfeeding.
The research at the time showed that less than 5% of women had an actual medical condition prohibiting their body from producing enough milk. And the point of the article was simple – ‘hey – just be honest about why you have stopped breastfeeding. Because you are doing damage when you tell that little white lie’
So back to sleep – when mothers state that they have tried ‘everything’ to get their child to sleep but then also roll their eyes when I mention food additives, or they don’t understand that sleeping with your mouth open can cause breathing disruption – then I can clearly see that they haven’t tried ‘everything’ – so hey just be honest. Also – we don’t know what we don’t know. I get that! Hence the purpose of this post!
When we all continue perpetuating the concept that ‘autistic kids just don’t sleep’ the outcome is giving us all permission to not keep looking for ways to help our kids. It gives us permission to give up.
I am not saying that every child’s sleep challenges can be resolved. But I am saying this to you….
Don’t say you’ve tried everything if you haven’t tried this….
Let’s start with some basic SLEEP HYGIENE:
Now all of the above is pretty ‘standard procedure’ for those of us trying to correct sleep issues. I’m sure you’ve heard of and tried them all.
If you’re still reading, I guess it’s because the above hasn’t helped…. So, let’s get into the big stuff that you may not have tried.
Now some of this might sound extreme. But do you know what sounds extreme to me? Medicating my child to sleep. Yep that sounds pretty damn extreme. So, if there is another way, I want to know about it and be sure that I gave it my all before resorting to synthetic hormones or medication which has side effects and is also – let’s be honest – a band-aid measure that does NOT address the root cause.
Our children do not have a Catapres deficiency. Medicating our children is NOT a long-term solution. At some point you will realise there has to be another way. There needs to be another option. So here they are.
As I said – some of these concepts may sound extreme. (Note: not dangerous). And the fact that some these ideas might seem extreme are proof of just how far from living a natural lifestyle we have strayed! That said, I absolutely suggest you speak with your naturopathic doctor or integrative practitioner about how to implement some or all of the below suggestions.
But I promise you – if you never try – and I mean give these interventions a serious and prolonged trial you will never know if they could help.
And if you decide not to try any of these interventions – that’s cool. But just be honest about it. Be honest with yourself, and with those you speak to about your child’s sleep.
Many doctors will look at you sideways if you talk about changing diet to help with sleep. If you encounter a doctor who doesn’t believe in the connection, you should run. Personally, I simply cannot understand why more people aren’t making the connection! There are SO many aspects to diet that affect sleep so here I will break down the most common things to look at:
This is just a few examples of how nutritional deficiencies affect sleep. How do you know if nutritional deficiencies are a problem for your child? Well more than half the world’s population are deficient in vitamin D, around 50% of the population are magnesium deficient, and according to the WHO, iron deficiency is the top nutritional disorder in the world. Need I say more?
Lets keep in mind that when your GP tests bloods through the lab – the reference ranges they use to determine deficiency are based on the local human population – NOT based on what optimal levels SHOULD be. Big difference. If everyone in Australia is magnesium deficient then the reference range used by the lab is going to be pretty useless right?
A simple blood test will give you lots of answers and is short term pain (the blood draw) for long term gain (possibly getting to the root cause).
The visible light spectrum is the segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that the human eye can view, and it only makes up 1% of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Just because we can’t see these other forces, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there affecting us at all times. In fact, the ‘world’ you see through your human eyes is nothing like the ‘world’ that actually exists. Essentially, we cannot see 99% of what is happening around us. And even more bizarrely, you see everything displaced in time. Light takes time to get to your eyes. If the Sun disappeared right now, we would not know it for about 8 minutes. But that’s another topic for another day. What we need to realise is that there is a LOT going on around us that our bodies don’t have the senses to detect.
How important is light? In 2010, shift work was classified as 'probably' carcinogenic by IARC (Group 2A), specifically for breast cancer. This classification comes from 'sufficient evidence' from animal experiments and 'limited evidence' in humans demonstrating that light during the normal dark period of the day increases carcinogenicity.
This is important stuff.
We forget that we are animals. We look at our high-rise buildings and driverless cars and don’t realise that we have completely lost sight of the fact that we are part of nature and should be in sync with nature. Just because we can create artificial light, does that mean that we should.
Not only are we exposed to artificial lighting in our homes, we are constantly exposed to more and more light sources through personal devices and tablets, the number of hours you spend online at work or at home, screens on our fridge and other home appliances, even when driving the car!
We all have a body clock or circadian rhythm that pretty closely matches to a 24-hour cycle – which is you ask me is no coincidence! The sun rises and the sun sets – and I don’t feel like it’s such a stretch to believe that Mother Earth is trying to tell us something. Dr. Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School showed in 1981, that daylight keeps a person's internal clock aligned with the environment. So therefore, the number of hours you spend in natural light will affect your body clock. The number of hours you spend in artificial life (especially blue light) is detrimental to good sleep.
Essentially circadian biology is fundamental to sleep, and the circadian clock situated in the hypothalamus is controlling it all. Exposure to light soon after wakening advances the circadian rhythm, whereas exposure before sleeping delays the rhythm.
There is no dietary supplement that can substitute for the full spectrum light from the sun. Artificial, indoor lighting provides only a small portion of the wavelengths of light that the sun does and these missing wavelengths make a difference to our health.
As humans (animals) our interaction with light (the sun and moon) remains integral to our health - and yet because humans can create artificial light, we seem to have forgotten that as animals who are part of nature we require natural light to function well.
Unfortunately, in today’s modern world, we are constantly exposed to artificial light. We live with our smartphones, tablets, and laptops close to our faces. Because these tech devices emit bright blue light right into our eyes, they seriously interfere with our circadian rhythms. Our brain misinterprets the light as sunlight. If, like most people, you use these devices at night, they’re actually encouraging your brain to keep you up at a time when, ironically, you may be using them to “wind down.”
Blue light has a detrimental effect on melatonin (the sleep hormone) production by reducing the secretion of melatonin and that effect is longer-lasting that other types of light. The effect of blue light has on melanopsinleads to physiological responses such as the suppression of melatonin production, increased alertness and alterations to the circadian rhythm.
Exposure to just 40 lux of blue light is sensitive enough to impact circadian rhythms, while red light does not cause any melatonin suppression (Figueiro and Rea, 2010). In addition, children are twice as sensitive to blue light exposure resulting in melatonin suppression compared with adults (Higuchi et al., 2014), so it’s important that children do not use digital devices after sunset.
Note: Sun exposure helps us create vitamin D and we have already spoken above how that is linked to sleep!
EMF stands for Electrico Magnetic Fields and they are energy sources which surround us on a daily basis in the world that we currently reside in. There are natural (native) EMFs such as sunlight and cosmic radiation, and there are non-native (man-made) EMFs such as powerlines, household appliances, wireless devices and cell towers.
Science has established that the unnatural qualities of man-made EMFs create biologically meaningless currents in human cells and nervous systems, causing disruption on many different levels. The human body has many natural electrical functions of its own, and the cells and systems within the body are innately designed to send and receive this electrical information. When we absorb electro-pollution from man-made sources, the cells in our bodies have the capacity to receive it as information, which affects us negatively in some pretty specific ways. For example, scientists have been able to ascertain that EMFs knock ions out of our cells and they also interfere with the metabolism of the cell nucleus. This disruption can account for lowered melatonin levels. It has also been established that these frequencies create stress proteins within our bodies, which means that EMFs cause a constant underlying state of physical stress.
Here we are supplementing our kids with melatonin and yet allowing them to engage in activities that directly supress their own body from making the real deal! Seems a little backwards right?
Deep sleep is wonderfully restorative and an important phase of sleep for your body and brain. A lot happens during this vital time of restoration BUT if your child isn’t breathing well, you can guarantee they aren’t sleeping well.
Dr Jim Papadopoulos is one of Australia's leading sleep medicine physicians and is widely known for his work with sleep studies in children, and in particular children with special needs, orthodontic problems and gastro-intestinal issues. He states that 50% of children with an ADHD diagnosis actually have an undiagnosed obstructive sleep disorder.
It has now been well established that the way our children breathe affects the length and quality of their sleep. And that many children are experiencing obstructive sleep apnoea without their parents even being aware of it. Night waking, bed wetting, snoring, night terrors, sleep walking and teeth grinding can all be attributed to obstructive breathing episodes.
Sleep apnea also disrupts our circadian rhythms, causes imbalances in body and brain chemistry, interrupts cardiac and respiratory function, elevates blood pressure, and speeds up heart rate. And when a person isn't getting enough oxygen, all organs of the body can be affected, especially the brain.
There are many reasons for poor breathing during sleep. One of the biggest ones being breathing through the mouth instead of the nose.
When we breathe through the nose, it keeps our bodies in the parasympathetic state so it can actually “rest and digest” and carry out all of the processes necessary to recover from the previous day. Mouth-breathing, though, can put us back into the sympathetic state, and make us wake up more frequently. It can actually cause spikes in the stress hormone cortisol – so if you wake up often thinking it’s because you need to pee – this could be a sign that you’re not breathing well in your sleep.
If you haven’t already – watch my interview with holistic dentist Dr Ron Erlich where we discuss how mouth breathing affects sleep quality. It is truly eye opening.
Other than mouth breathing, partial obstruction of the airways by tonsils and adenoids can affect breathing quality, and inflammation or congestion in the airways from allergies, food intolerances etc, even teeth crowding can affect the space in the mouth that is available for the tongue.
Before sleep, practicing pranayamic breathing resets your autonomic nervous system and will help you achieve sleep much quicker. There are many tutorials online you can try.
Assess your childs breathing at home. Observe them closely in their sleep to see if they are mouth breathing, snoring or congested. If so – investigate why. Is there an undiagnosed intolerance or allergy at play? Removing tonsils or adenoids is not always the best or only answer – because these act as important filters for the airflow of oxygen into the lungs. When seeing a practitioner for your child, ensure they are a holistic doctor who is looking at your whole child as a set of interconnected systems – not just looking at what’s happening in your child’s mouth.
WRAPPING THINGS UP…
So here is your challenge if you really truly honestly want to know if your child’s sleep issues can be resolved permanently.
And if you decide not to try all or any of these interventions – like I said earlier, that’s cool. This is your child – your parenting, your experience of autism and your experience of life. You chose how you want to help your child. I simply ask you to think about the language you use.
Because perpetuating the theory that ‘children with autism just don’t sleep’ or they ‘don’t need much sleep’ doesn’t help anyone.