Sensory Needs and Sleep
Collaborative post created by Grace Magennis- The Sensory Submarine and Susan Wallace- Sleep Consultant from Settled Petals (www.setlledpetals.com)
When it comes to sensory needs or sensory personality of children, many children fall into one of 2 categories. Those who are sensory seeking and those who are sensory avoidant. With others falling in the middle or fluctuating between the two. Sensory seeking children soothe in an environment which is sensory rich. They may enjoy activities such as splashing in puddles, playing in the bath, swinging on a swing, bouncing on a bouncy castle etc. Sensory avoidant children may find it easier to soothe in environments which are not as sensory rich. For example quieter environments with less stimuli. It is not unusual for some children to enjoy some sensory seeking input whilst also favouring some quite time as well. Each individual child has their own sensory requirements and preferences.
So how do these sensory preferences influence sleep?
In order to sleep we need to unwind and enter a relaxed state. Knowing how children unwind and regulate can help us understand how to support them to sleep. Generally (but not always) sensory seeking children may find it more difficult to fall asleep than those who are sensory avoidant. This is because the sleep environment often lacks the sensory input they require to soothe. Parents may observe their children kicking their legs on the side of the wall / cot and misinterpret it for disruptive rather than soothing behaviour. Other children may shake their head from side to side in order to obtain soothing sensory input.
Children who soothe using sensory seeking behaviours will likely require a certain amount of sensory input throughout the day, to meet their sensory needs. If this is not achieved they may find it more difficult to settle in the evening. This can be relevant on say a rainy day where the child did not have the same opportunity to run, splash and bounce. Adding sensory input into their day, and particularly in the run up before bed can therefore be useful. sensory seeking children benefit greatly from lots of activity and physical input throughout the day. An obstacle course is a great example of an activity you could try with your sensory seeking child; Incorporate in activities such as commando crawls through a tunnel, frog jumps, slithering like a snake and rolling over a gym ball or a peanut roll- activities which all provide deep proprioceptive feedback and help fill up that sensory cup! In the evenings before bedtime, jumping on the trampoline, having a swing or running a few laps of the garden again tops up that sensory need before settling down for bed. After dinner as bedtime approaches some heavy, deep proprioceptive input can help to calm and soothe the sensory seeker….try some gentle wall or chair push ups with your child, roll them up tightly in a blanket or a towel if they have had a bath and give them some tight hugs and squishes or try rolling the peanut roll or gym ball gently but firmly over their body whilst they are lying down. A foot or hand massage using their favourite cream can also help. Why not try adding a few drops of lavender essential oil to help soothe and calm further?
If your child seeks a lot of deep pressure and sensory input during the day it may be worthwhile considering a referral to occupational therapy who can look in more detail at your child’s sensory profile and give detailed advice on sensory circuits and what would best meet the specific sensory needs of your child.
Having access to resources and aids which help to calm and soothe is also important. A weighted blanket or snake can be really useful to help your child calm, as can squishy fidget balls or liquid timers. Just ensure the weights and togs of blankets are suitable for your child, their age and the temperature. As a general rule of thumb a weighted blanket should weigh no more than 10% of your child’s body weight and should not be used with babies or toddlers as they can pose a suffocation risk as smaller children can find it difficult to move underneath them. A child should also be supervised whilst using one. Sensory stretchy sheets provide similar deep pressure feedback which stimulates the production of melatonin and serotonin which promotes sleep. They allow for greater movement and flexibility and are made from a breathable fabric so can be a better choice for many sensory seeking children when thinking about sleep. Some children who are sensory seeking will seek a lot of oral motor input- you may have found it very difficult to wean your child from their dummy or find your child chews a lot of bed covers or comforters to help them settle at night. An oral motor aid or chew toy can be helpful to help a child like this settle at night and provide the deep, soothing feedback they are seeking.
Children who favour sensory avoidant environments may enjoy the quiet sleep environment, but may be sensitive to sensory input from sheets, pyjamas etc. Think about the bedroom environment- Are the walls in the bedroom painted in bright, loud colours or is the bedroom full of clutter….2 things which are likely to be very overwhelming for the sensory avoidant child. They may or may not enjoy a bath before bed. If they do not relax in the bath, it can be helpful to move this to another location in the day. Others may enjoy the bath, but prefer a more peaceful bathing environment with not too many toys, loud noises, strong scented toiletries or splashing. Care should be taken to ensure that rough labels inside their sleepwear are not rubbing or agitating them. These children may prefer softer, lighter sheets and duvets. Think about smell, your child may find the use of essential oils soothing and relaxing- things such as lavender can aid quality sleep. However on the other hand if your child is particularly sensitive to smell this may not be helpful. Close the bedroom door to reduce light and sound- be conscious that they may be able to hear the tv in the living room, or the hall light that has been left on may be keeping them awake. Subtle noises like a fan or diffuser can sound really loud and disruptive to a child who is particularly sensitive to noise so do have a close think about what could be keeping your child awake and making it difficult for them to settle. If your child is particularly sensitive to noise, noise cancelling headphones may be useful.
Being aware of your child’s preferences in relation to touch, movement, sound, smell and taste can help us to match the ideal soothing environment to promote sleep within their own individual capacity. Routine is very important to all children in relation to sleep. Try to keep it consistent, have a set bedtime, complete daily activities in the same order every night for example super, brush teeth, go to toilet, pyjamas on, storytime, sleep. For young children or children who have limited communication or difficulties with understanding or concentration a visual schedule can be really useful. This will help your child to see clearly what they need to do next and each step can be removed as it is completed and placed in a box or envelope. This is a very methodical approach that in itself can be calming and reassuring for children with sensory needs.
We have many products available on our website which support with sensory needs in relation to sleep, from visual liquid timers to weighted snakes, oral motor aids and stretchy sensory sheets. Unsure where to start? Feel free to DM or send an email. Do check out www.settledpetals.com for detailed support and advice in relation to baby and toddler sleep.