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6 Tips on How to Help an Autistic Child Nap at Daycare

April 1, 2024

If it weren’t difficult enough to make naps happen at home, many parents and providers struggle with how to get an autistic child to nap at daycare. Parents worry about the environment at nap time. Will the staff try long enough, or will the nap happen at all? If the nap doesn’t happen, will their child fall asleep on the way home, making bedtime a late-night struggle?

Daycare providers might not have much experience working with children on the spectrum. They might not know how to support a child to make sure they are getting the rest they need.

Regardless if you’re reading this as a professional or parent, naps at daycare can be successful. Learn how to get an autistic child to nap at daycare and support them through routine, visuals, and more.

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1. Keep open lines of communication

Parents can do all the right things with routine, positive reinforcement, and packing the right stuffed animal. However, if they are unclear about what their child needs, there is only so much we can expect with nap quality and success. For the daycare teacher, it’s important to ask the right questions when it comes to supporting a child.

Parents and daycare need to work as a team to ensure consistent and successful nap times. I recommend that parents give the staff a list of their child’s likes and dislikes regarding naps. 

They can specify what their child needs with regard to the environment, sensory tools, timing, and more. Be specific – if your child tends to nap with their legs curled up underneath them, it’s important the staff knows it’s okay and typical.  

As a daycare provider, it’s important to communicate with parents about what happens at nap time. Often, families that I work with simply don’t get that information. 

Then, families are “flying blind” when it comes to nighttime. As a provider, it’s important to recognize that children with autism often have abnormal sleep patterns.  No nap or too long a nap can have a huge impact on sleep quality that night.  

Working as a team and communicating is a win-win. Parents know what kind of day their child had, and daycare can feel reassured about supporting the autistic child. Hopefully, the child gets a good nap each day.

2. Encourage an ideal sleep environment for naptime

In a daycare setting, this cannot be 100% perfect every single time. However, what will help a child with autism can be really helpful for the other kids in the room, too.  

First, leading up to nap time, make the room darker and quieter. This can be done by turning down the lights on one side of the room and trying to stick to quiet time activities the 30 minutes or so before naptime. Activities can include drawing or coloring, reading books as a group, light stretching during circle time, etc.

Two girls drawing in the coloring book laying on the floor on the blanket
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Once it’s time for a nap, the darker the room is, the better it will be for all the kids. Autistic children are more sensitive to light influences, and even a little light can interrupt or prevent a nap from happening altogether.

In addition, try to make the room a bit cooler. Naps will be shorter if a room is too hot. This is especially important for autistic kids, as they have more difficulty with body temperature regulation. As a sleep coach for kids with autism, I find that many kids have elevated body temperatures.

Parents should ask about the room environment, make sure that their child is dressed appropriately, and send them with any other necessary tools.

3. Try to stick to a naptime routine

Bedtime and naptime routines are crucial for kids on the spectrum. Having worked with hundreds of children with autism, I’ve seen firsthand how quickly sleep improves when routines are in place and as consistent as possible. It allows the child to wind down and get prepared for sleep.

For parents, work on a consistent and simple routine at home. Ideally, it should be one that can be replicated at daycare.

It should only be a few minutes long and can include a quick potty stop or diaper change, reading a book, helping turn off lights, etc. In addition, ask daycare what time they put kids to nap and mimic that time at home.

For daycare providers, do your best to stick to the routine. Depending on class size, this cannot always happen perfectly. However, whatever routine can be done will help the child successfully get to sleep. 

At the very least, make sure the child is getting put down for a nap at the same time window each day. In general, the more predictable things are, the easier it will be for a child to feel calm and settled.

4. Use sleep-friendly sensory tools

When a child is in a busy daycare environment, it’s important that we utilize sensory tools to help them settle down faster to sleep. Anything that can help the body feel more calm can keep naps on track.

Some tools might include a weighted blanket to settle an active body or a blanket that your child is not sensitive to. It might be a sensory toy, like a vibrating pillow or something with a warm light. Listening to the same music they listen to at home may help some children fall asleep.


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5. Make sure to utilize visual supports

As a sleep coach for kids on the spectrum, I provide every child I work with visual supports to help make changes at home smoother. There’s no reason why we cannot use the same supports at daycare, too.

The two most commonly used supports are visual checklists and social stories. A visual checklist can be helpful for both the child and daycare provider to follow to know what the naptime routine is. For children who might lack focus in busy environments, this tangible item can help keep them on track.

Social stories are a great way to teach a child what to expect when they are at daycare and it’s time to nap. I’ve written many stories like this for parents to illustrate where their child will be sleeping and prepare them for unexpected noises, different people putting them to sleep, and more. 

Parents should feel comfortable printing and giving copies of the checklist and social story to their child’s daycare provider.

6. Keep it positive

For an autistic child to sleep outside their usual environment is no small feat.  Anything that parents and daycare staff can highlight to show the child what they’ve done well is key for future successful naps.

If providers feel comfortable, they can tell the child what they did well at nap time. This can be how long they napped, using a quiet voice, lying quietly to wait for other kids to wake up, etc.

If parents know how naps went at daycare, they can use that information to celebrate the big and small victories at home. Parents may consider using a small reward system with their children for successful nap days at daycare.

Getting an autistic child to nap at daycare

There are many factors when it comes to getting any child with autism to sleep well. For naps during the day, if we factor in what is needed regarding the environment, routine, sensory needs, and more, it can make quite a big impact on overall nap quality.

For the daycare provider and teacher, taking things one day at a time is important.  For many children with autism, sleep is often hard to come by because of sensory processing issues, digestion issues, and more. 

A young boy napping at daycare
https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/how-to-get-autistic-child-nap-daycare/

Just because a child only napped briefly does not mean that what you’re changing isn’t working. It often takes time and consistency to see long-lasting changes in sleep.

For parents, as always, stay in contact with your child’s daycare. If your child had a rough night of sleep, let the staff know ahead of time so they can try to start the process earlier or, at the very least, manage the expectations around your child’s nap that day.  

When parents and daycare staff work together as a team, it ultimately leads to napping success for the child. When parents provide the necessary information and tools ahead of time, and staff lets parents know exactly what happened, it allows the child to reset appropriately and get ready for another day. 

It is not one person’s responsibility exclusively. Working as a team allows everyone involved to feel successful and empowered to keep working on naps at daycare.

FAQs

Q: How do you help an autistic child nap?

A: To help an autistic child nap, make the room darker, quieter, and cooler. Stick to the same routine as at daycare or home. Provide sleep tools, such as a weighted blanket, a toy with a warm light, or soft, soothing music. Having a visual checklist can help the child know what to expect.

Q: How do you help an autistic child adjust to daycare?

A: Utilize social stories to prepare your child for daycare. Include pictures of staff, the building, and routines. Read the story twice daily in the week leading up to daycare. Address any struggles with drop-offs by creating specific stories. Share these stories with daycare staff to help your child adjust. Maintain consistent routines to ease transitions and promote comfort and success.

Q: Is daycare good for autistic children?

A: Ultimately, parents need to follow their own intuition on this. Daycare can aid in social and language development, but it can also overwhelm with bright lights and loud noises. Base the decision on your child’s past experiences and current development, and consider a trial day to assess their comfort in the daycare environment. 

Q: Why are transitions so hard for autistic children?

A: Change and transitions are difficult for children with autism because their neurological system is more sensitive. Change can bring up worry and fear that may activate the body’s already sensitive “fight or flight” system. Some children have difficulty with sequencing and the order of things, so changes to the usual routine can be hard to process.

References:

Chen, H., Yang, T., Chen, J. et al. Sleep problems in children with autism spectrum disorder: a multicenter survey. BMC Psychiatry 21, 406 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-021-03405-w

Ayelet Arazi, Gal Meiri, Dor Danan, Analya Michaelovski, Hagit Flusser, Idan Menashe, Ariel Tarasiuk, Ilan Dinstein, Reduced sleep pressure in young children with autism, Sleep, Volume 43, Issue 6, June 2020, zsz309, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsz309

Souders MC, Mason TB, Valladares O, Bucan M, Levy SE, Mandell DS, Weaver TE, Pinto-Martin J. Sleep behaviors and sleep quality in children with autism spectrum disorders. Sleep. 2009 Dec;32(12):1566-78. doi: 10.1093/sleep/32.12.1566. PMID: 20041592; PMCID: PMC2786040.

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