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Sensory Sleep Guide For Parents: Sensory Processing Disorder and Sleep Issues

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Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that occurs when you perceive sensory information with either too high or too low of a response. Some children with SPD can have difficulty getting a good night’s sleep. Sensory processing disorder and sleep issues have a strong connection due to the overstimulation of certain senses experienced by a child with SPD.

To know what needs to be done to get your child to sleep, a keen observance of their behavior to stimuli will help. Once that is accomplished you will be able to utilise the tools below in order to create the ideal environment. But what do you need to look for? Below are some ideal ways to help your child sleep.

How to get a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder to Sleep?

  1. Understand their 8 senses
  2. Develop a bedtime routine
  3. Change the Bedroom Environment
  4. Develop a daytime routine

Understand Their 8 Senses

Mother touching baby's hand

Do you remember when you were younger; you would cover your ears when fireworks went off because it hurt your ears?  Your ears were sensitive to the noise or it scared you.  The message of that ‘sense’ was sent to your brain and came back with the appropriate response to put your hands over your ears to muffle the noise.

If you had Sensory Processing Disorder, you may have an increased sensitivity to the stimuli. For example, the constant buzzing of the fridge might just be too much for your body and sound extremely loud. This means, our central nervous system (i.e. our brain) has trouble understanding this sensory input, and then we may produce an abnormal response. You may not be able to zone this buzzing sound out and this impacts your ability to focus on the work you need to do.

This is an oversimplification but does give a basic understanding of how SPD works. For more information about SPD, check out our article about What is Sensory Processing Disorder.

To have an understanding of how to get your child to sleep, we must understand what senses are coming back with abnormal messages.  Sensory Integration is the brain’s ability to process and make use of our senses.  Most people know the five senses:

  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Sight
  • Hear

There are an additional three that you should be aware of:

  • Vestibular:  If you have ever dealt with an infant with an ear infection, you know what vertigo is.  Vertigo is when you lose control of your inner balancing system.  This is similar to how vestibular processing works in harmony with your sight and hearing for coordination.  If your brain can’t perceive your body movements correctly, you are more likely to bump into things.
  • Proprioception:  If you are stressed, your muscles tighten, and you are painfully aware of it.  Children with SPD are unaware of relaxed or tense muscles.  They don’t know when they grab something to tightly or too loosely.  With this unawareness comes with difficulty in performing tasks such as tying shoelaces, grasping toys or animals too tightly, or knowing how hard to close a door. They have difficulty regulating their proprioception.
  • Interoception:  This refers to basic commands our body makes of us.  We know when we are hungry when we have to use the bathroom, and when we are thirsty.  Children with SPD may not be able to read these body commands.

Sensory Processing Disorder lives in a spectrum. This spectrum means that your child can struggle with interpreting all of the eight senses, a few of them, and experience them in several different frequencies. 

Everyone experiences their environment using eight senses []. Understanding your child’s 8 senses & how these senses might be affecting your child with SPD is the first step in being able to help them to fall asleep.

Your child’s Occupational Therapist can help complete a sensory assessment to see how your child’s sensory preferences. However, it is important to trial a range of strategies sees which ones work best for your child. This trial and error include perfecting a sleep ritual to get them to sleep. But understanding these 8 senses’ influence on your child is the first step to fixing sleep issues related to SPD.

Develop A Bedtime Routine

Child Sleeping

Adhering to a schedule is crucial in establishing good sleep patterns and a bedtime routine.  There should be a traditional routine or bedtime ritual that is performed every night at the same time, so the child mentally prepares for what is about to happen and can put them in the right mindset.

Some nightly rituals that are known to work for sensory processing disorder and sleep are:

  • Bath
  • Read a story
  • Rocking in a rocking chair while talking about the day
  • Crossing the day off on the calendar
  • Brushing teeth and going to the bathroom with a hug and a kiss

It isn’t so much of what you do; it is about setting the tone and proper environment for the daily ‘wind down.’  Keeping it consistent and about the same time every night will signify that ‘this is what we do before bedtime.’  The child’s mind and body will start to respond with the wind-down every night. 

If one thing isn’t working or has the adverse effect of winding the child up, try something else.  Creativity will be vital in developing a ritual that works with your child and you.  This consistent bedtime routine and sleep habits should also work with all members of the family, not just one.  The ritual can be as long or as short as you want it to be, but it must remain consistent.  Consistency is key to fixing sleep issues. 

There are also some things to avoid in your routine and sleep habits as they have a less calming effect.  The goal is to create an environment with fewer arousal factors.  The good and the bad of things are:

  • AVOID television or any bright screens
  • DO dim the lights in a quiet space (sleep disturbances to minimum)
  • AVOID loud, fast-paced activities
  • DO soothing activities such as yoga or deep breathing
  • AVOID cold drinks
  • DO warm drinks or room temperature

If you adhere to these helpful hints, you will achieve dreamland in no time.  It may also help to create a sleepy, restful environment.

Change the Bedroom Environment

Pastel child's bedroom interior

A child with SPD is extremely sensitive to their environment, so it would be beneficial to create a soothing atmosphere in their room.  Simple things such as changing their room to their favorite color or providing them with a darker room with select shades or curtains will help them in falling asleep. 

Busy bedroom walls tend to keep them awake, so a simple pattern is better. Sleep challenges are not just a headache to parents but are also detrimental to your child’s overall health, so if making a few changes will improve your ability to handle sensory overload and get a good night’s sleep, do it!

Some other things that you can do that are cost-effective are:

  • Changing the sheets:  If the sheets are busy with their favorite TV show characters, you may want to take the energy level down and replace them with a solid plain color that feels good to the child’s touch or tactile input.
  • Body pillows:  Hugging a pillow or a stuffed animal at night is comforting to a child.  Providing something they can hold during the night may help them in falling asleep.
  • Close the door:  Closing the door will help muffle the distractions on the other side of it.  If your child is scared of the dark, a dim night light may do the trick.  Or ask them what they are afraid of.  If it is the closet monster or the monster under their bed, fill a spray bottle with water and label it MONSTER DETERRENT or something similar.  Spray the room a few times.  Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  The point is, the darker the room, the better.  There are fewer stimuli in a dark room to keep them awake.  If your child is old enough, maybe a good old sleep mask will do the trick.
  • Keep a cold room:  Cool rooms decrease body temperature, which allows a better transition to sleep.  If you provide a cold room, you can add a heavy quilt. This leads to our next strategy.
  • Use a weighted blanket or heavy quilt: A weighted blanket and heavy quilt provides a soothing deep pressure and a sense of boundaries on the bed that allow a child to fall asleep more soundly.  
  • Warm Pajamas: You can also try putting the pajamas in the dryer for five minutes before bedtime to give that full warmth and relaxation bit that they do at the spa.
  • Rhythms work:  If you have a sound machine that isn’t distracting or even an air purifier, the monotonous rhythmic sounds will put them to sleep.  If your child is not bothered by noise, soft music does a fine trick of lulling a baby to sleep as well.
  • Noise-canceling headphones:  If your child is old enough, a pair of these may do the trick for highly sensitive ears. 
  • Privacy Tents or Hammocks:  Putting a privacy tent on your child’s bed can limit stimuli that they see in the room and silence it altogether.  Since children with SPD enjoy rhythmic movement and swinging, placing a hammock in their room to sleep in, may be a viable solution to sleepless nights.

All of these subtle changes could make a significant impact on how easily your child is falling asleep and staying asleep.  There are also a few things that you can do during the day to make the bedtime ritual more readily adopted.

Daytime Rituals to Help Sleep At Night

Happy children play with sand and water in sensory baskets on the outdoor sensory table,

Ensuring that your child has a menu of sensory activities to do during the day will make them more likely to feel positive about the sleep ritual at night.  Setting up sensory stations in your home is an excellent way to ensure that they are getting adequate stimulation during the day. Example stations that can help keep the sensory activity during the day on track are:

Some children with Sensory Processing Disorders love to jump and tumble.  A mini-trampoline indoors or a giant one outdoors will provide plenty of enjoyment during the daytime hours with the dual benefit of burning off that wealth of child energy that all children have. 

A Play-Doh station makes for great creative fun while it teaches focus.  Sticking your hands in the cold clay is addicting for both child and parent.  The colors provide a source of inspiration.  The Play-Doh station doesn’t have to be fully accessorized.  A simple mat with some cans of Play-Doh is enough to keep even the busiest bodies at play.

On a nice day, getting wet out in the yard can keep children busy for hours. Merely providing a bucket and a few sponges is enough to get a water war going.  Garden hoses or sprinklers allow for hours of running around.  Add some water balloons and game on! 

Sand tables are a great addition to any sensory activity center.  Sand tables are excellent because they can be used inside or outside.  Adding a few accessories like dump trucks to push the sand around or a little water to make sandcastles lets the imagination run wild.

Instruments are wonderful if your and their ears can take them.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.  A pair of maracas or a tambourine will have your little roadie busy for hours creating new songs and experimenting.  Even pots and pans can be turned into musical instruments.

The trick of sensory activities is allowing your child to immerse themselves in their imagination and provide mental and physical stimulation, so when the bedtime ritual comes, their body and mind are ready to wind down.  If your child is not stimulated enough during the day, then they will seek stimulation activities during the night and keep you and your family on the hunt with them.

It is imperative to create a schedule, just as at bedtime.  The schedule during the day can be more lenient, but it must be full of activity.  The schedule at bedtime must be much stricter and adhere to the bedtime schedule.  Part of this schedule is knowing if your child has Sensory Processing Disorder or sensory processing issues.

What Are the Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder?

Researchers are still studying what can cause Sensory Processing Disorder, but there are some signs to watch for.  Children that are easily stimulated may have hypersensitivity, while children who aren’t easily stimulated would be considered hyposensitivity.

Children who have hypersensitivity may:

  • Have lower pain thresholds to things such as noise, brightness, and clothing
  • Cover their eyes or ears frequently in order to muffle the overload
  • Be clumsy
  • Run away from situations in order to find somewhere quiet and safe
  • Be an extremely picky eater

Children who are hyposensitive will be on the other side of the spectrum and seek out stimulus and interaction with their environment searching endlessly for sensory feedback.  This constant searching may seem like hyperactivity when really, they are trying desperately to gauge their surroundings.  Their symptoms may include:

  • High pain threshold
  • The need to touch everything they can lay their hands-on
  • Gripping tightly onto toys or humans
  • Sticking everything in their mouths
  • Slamming into things

It is essential to observe your child in order to get a full understanding of what level they are sensory challenged in.  Once you see how they operate in certain situations and what causes them comfort or discomfort, you will be more prepared in knowing what to do for the bedtime ritual.

Oddly, sensory issues are not considered an official condition.  What this means is there are no formal criteria for a diagnosis to happen.  Professionals work with what they see the child doing and how they behave in certain situations, just as you do in order to figure out what senses your child is struggling with. 

Some professionals use what’s called a Sensory Integration and Praxis Test (SIPT) or Sensory Processing Measure (SPM) in order to help understand the child’s sensory challenges.  If you are concerned that your child is suffering from Sensory Processing Disorder, you should take them to see a doctor and explain your concerns. An Occupational Therapist can also do sensory assessments to find out what your child’s needs are and provide some suitable strategies. An excellent time to seek help is:

  • The child’s behavior is interrupting everyday life, making it hard for them to function, including sleep deprivation.
  • If your child is normally clumsy, but suddenly cannot walk or stand, or if you see the symptoms take a dramatic turn.
  • You are unable to manage your child’s symptoms without a trained professional because they are incredibly severe.

There is no quick fix for Sensory Processing Disorder. Children may experience less severe symptoms as they age or learn to cope with their symptoms in positive ways.  Sensory Processing Disorder takes a lot of time and effort in order to manage. Occupational Therapists can provide you with strategies to help your child manage their sensory processing needs.

How Can I Help My Child with Sensory Processing Disorder Sleep?

Young mother and child hugging. Mothers day

Sleep deprivation in children has serious cognitive, physical, and emotional consequences such as:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Not retaining new information
  • Lack of interest
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Feeling Stressed

It is crucial that your little one gets enough sleep.  Adding these other problems to a child with SPD is like adding fuel to the fire and compounding an already complicated issue.  If a child has a hard time staying asleep, this can impact the whole family’s sleep. 

Some things that may help you get the child to fall asleep are establishing new bedtime routines, sleep habits, and patterns. Also, consider routines outside the bedroom throughout the day.  As children with SPD can sense everything in their environment, everything in their rooms to the pajamas they wear plays a significant role in their sleeping habits.

How to get a Sensory Seeker to Sleep?

A Sensory Seeker is those children who actively seek additional sensory input. Your child may be a sensory seeker if they:

  • Enjoy crashing into the bed or couch
  • Enjoy jumping or running to and from places, rather than walking
  • Touch everything they walk past
  • Like icy cold drinks
  • Love big hugs

If you have a child who is a sensory seeker, it can be hard to get them to sleep if they want more sensory input. To help them regulate their bodies, you may want to try some of the following strategies:

  • Use a weighted blanket: A weighted blanket provides deep pressure and has a calming effect, even for sensory seekers. It gives them the deep pressure input which they might seek, but in a regulating way that can calm them bodies in order to sleep soundly.
  • Provide heavy work activities before bed: This means do lots of jumping, pushing, pulling activities before bedtime. This gives the body the sensory input they need and meet the threshold before they go to sleep. Sometimes children can get even more energetic after movement. It is important to practice slow, heavy movements before bedtime.

How to help Sensory Processing Disorder Infant Sleep?

When you have an infant, it can be hard to know if they have Sensory Processing Disorder or not. However, if you have an older child who has SPD or has experience with children with SSPD, you may notice this earlier in your infant.

Similar to young children, you want to know what sensory input your infant is having trouble with. They may not like bright lights or loud noises. Or they may need additional vestibular movement (i.e. rocking) for them to go to sleep. Identifying the sensory input and whether your infant needs more or less of it, is important for you to change the environment for your infant with Sensory Processing Disorder to sleep.

The Final Word

Knowing how your child reacts with sensory stimuli is a big part of the puzzle on how to get them to sleep.  Once you are aware of what is affecting your child, the creative guru will come bursting out of you to find the solution.  The best medicine is a scheduled bedtime ritual that is consistent across the board and a daytime program of keeping sensory interactions high.

This perfect balance will create a pleasant, manageable environment for your child and return control of your life back to you.  Everyone divides their life into pieces of time when it comes down to it.  Keeping a schedule is just a refinement of divvying up your time and allows you to focus on what really matters. 

With practice and determination, you and your little one will be enjoying a full night’s sleep and reaping the benefits.  Don’t lose hope; stay the course; symptoms are manageable. If you want some more strategies to help your child with Sensory Processing Disorder, sign up for to the ReadyKids platform where you will have unlimited access to Occupational Therapy resources.

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