Effects of sensory processing difficulties on sleep behaviours

Research has discovered a significant link between sleep behaviours/patterns and the way a child experiences sensory stimuli or sensations.
For some children, the bedtime routine leading up to bedtime can be so dysregulating that it impacts the quality of sleep they achieve. Whilst for another child, their day is so overstimulating that settling and falling asleep can be difficult. Sometimes the overstimulation from the day is so exhausting that the child may fall asleep when they get home and this then disrupts their night time sleep.

Sensitivity and sleep difficulties

Children who are sensitive to sight, touch, movement, and sound can experience more difficulties with sleep. Sensory modulation difficulties can impact on self-regulation because these children don’t yet have the strategies to do this independently and thus require additional co-regulation, adaptive strategies, and use of external sensory inputs to support sleep.
As well as sensory modulation difficulties impacting on sleep, we also rely on our Interoception to sense that we are tired. Common difficulties with sleep include:
  • Taking a long time to settle or a long time to fall asleep.
  • Requiring someone present in the room, next to the bed, or lying in bed in order to fall asleep.
  • Restlessness during the night or frequent changing of positions.
  • Getting up or waking up at night on a regular basis.
  • Inconsistent sleep patterns e.g. sleeps 6 hours one night and 10 hours the next night.
  • Showing signs of being excessively tired during the day or falls asleep during the day.

Ideas to support healthy sleep routines

  • Try to ensure your child engages in lots of movement and heavy work activities during the day, but at least one hour before bed switch to quiet play.
  • Create a consistent bedtime routine. Completing a routine before bed is a great way to help the mind and body prepare for sleep. It may take some time to figure out what works best for you, your family, and your child. Experimentation, creativity, and flexibility are important in this process and once you figure out a routine that works, stick to it!
  • If your child is sensitive to visual inputs, try to avoid bright screens (TV, computer, phone, iPad). Especially in the 1-2 hours right before bedtime. Blue light is alerting and can have a negative impact on melatonin production.
  • Relax in a quiet space before heading to bed with dim lighting and decreased sensory inputs e.g. visual and auditory stimulation.
  • Choose a relaxing activity like reading, drawing, jigsaw puzzle, word/number games (Sudoku, crossword or word search), cards, or knitting as a wind down activity.
  • Play soft, rhythmical music or white noise.
  • Wrap body tightly in a blanket or sit under a weighted blanket.
  • Take a warm shower or bath. Try calming scents such as lavender in the bath or a diffuser.
  • Meditate or do light yoga.
  • Dim the lights and close the curtains/blinds prior to the child entering the room. Use block out blinds to help filter out any additional light that might be keeping them awake.
  • A bed tent may help block out visual distractions if your child is visually sensitive.
  • Having a tight hug or play the ‘steam roller’ game (roll an exercise ball firmly over your child’s back while they lie on a carpeted floor or mat).
  • Rhythmic motion such as gently rock in a rocking chair can be calming. 
  • Offer the child a teddy with your perfume/cologne on it or a piece of your clothing with your scent on to help with separation.
  • Deep breathing or sucking may help the body feel more calm and ready for sleep; for example, blow up a balloon several times, drink room temperature water through a straw, or suck on a sugarless mint.
  • Tightly tuck the bed sheets/blanket in to provide firm, maintained deep touch pressure, or try a lycra compression sheet. Ensure your child is able to get out if they need to.
  • Offer heavy body pillows, duvets or weighted soft toys. Again, ensure your child is able to get out if they need to.
  • Be conscious about fabric preferences when purchasing bed sheets and pyjamas.
  • Put the mattress on the floor if your child is afraid of heights or use a bed rail (suitable for your bed) to help them feel secure.