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Sleep and Sensory Processing Disorder

Sleep and Sensory Processing Disorder

Little ones with SPD have unique bedtime needs

For many children and families in the US hypo- and hyper- sensitivity can make sleep difficult. We'll explore tips and resources to empower parents for bedtime success.

Cover Image: Shutterstock/Natalia Mels

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

For the estimated 5 – 16% of school-aged children with Sensory Processing Disorder, their daily life experience can differ quite a bit from other kids their age. What may seem like an everyday sound, touch or smell to some can be an input that needs to be avoided or sought out.

Families with children with SPD know that their little ones have unique needs, and their love and care is what makes the difference in the manageability of daily life. At the end of the day SPD is not merely a preference for one sensation over another, rather, it’s the difference between feeling safe and comfortable in one’s skin vs. feeling out of control and vulnerable.

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder 

Sensory processing disorder is what happens when the human brain quite literally has trouble processing sensations, whether it’s sight, sound, or feel. Sensory processing disorder can include one of two types of sensitivities, or be a mixture of both.

Hypersensitivity is the experience of being overwhelmed or easily affected by sensory input, which can cause people to engage in sensory-avoiding behavior like leaving the proximity of an area. Hypersensitive people may also become upset or mentally overwhelmed and exhausted.

Hyposensitivity is the opposite, where the person is under-sensitive to inputs and may engage in what’s known as sensory-seeking behavior for more stimulation. According to Understood.org, sensory-seekers may stand too close to others, have a high tolerance for pain, or touch people and objects often.

For those who are newly learning about sensory processing disorder, it’s important to remember that it is not the same as autism. SPD and autism are two separate conditions, though sometimes are both found in the same individuals. For more information, we recommend Understood.org. 

Sleep and Kids With SPD

Bedtime with sensory processing disorder can be difficult to navigate for both kids and parents. Hypersensitive children may spend lots of energy avoiding sensations that overwhelm them, not to mention the confusion about why their bodies feel this way. Hyposensitive children may also feel groggy and disconnected without the proper amount of sensory input. Sleeping may be the only time a child with SPD may find total rest, so it’s important to give them maximum comfort so they can do just that. 

There’s more to living with SPD than just seeking out or avoiding sensations. Many parents work closely with healthcare providers to figure out the best course of action for their children. Tools like therapy, extra help at school, and even a change of diet may help children work through SPD.  

Understanding Your Child’s Bedtime Needs 

Routine

When it comes to bedtime, it’s important for kids with sensory processing disorder and their parents to come up with a routine. This is twofold: children with routines and a plan for bedtime can often handle SPD better and in turn, parents get well-earned relaxation time of their own. Relaxed parents who are getting enough sleep are better equipped to take care of their children, so it’s a win-win all around.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to make bedtime easier. What’s more, children who self-regulate their schedules can have a more calm bedtime routine and thus a more restful night. This is something you’ll work on with your children and might even require assistance from your healthcare provider.  

Identify and Respect Your Child’s Limits

Particular events that happen throughout the day can affect your child’s ability to sleep at night, especially if your child has sensory processing disorder. Whether your child experiences hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity, it’s very important to keep close track every day of how often your child is under- or overexposed to sensations to find the right daily balance. Defining your child’s quota or limit each day can help you make decisions around scheduling their waking hours to ensure that sensory input during the day doesn’t make bedtime difficult.

Set the Internal Clock

Humans are creatures of habit and we thrive on a structured schedule. Helping set your child’s internal body clock can allow their body to wind down, and make it easier for them to get to sleep each night. As such, it’s important to set up a very clear nighttime routine for your child to get their internal clock on a schedule that works for all of you.

  • Allow your child to participate in setting their bedtime routine
  • Create a visual of the bedtime schedule that they can easily see and understand
  • During the day, make sure your child gets ample time to exercise and exposure to sunlight which are strong internal clock signals
  • Avoid daytime naps as much as possible, which can increase wakefulness later in the day
  • Keep the bedroom just for sleeping to help their brains identify that when they’re in bed, it’s time to sleep
  • Incorporate sensory-friendly activities into the bedtime routine

Diet

Many parents who have children with SPD have found that regulating their diets can help with their sensory management. Sensory-friendly nutrition plans typically focus on avoiding inflammatory foods which can aggravate hypo- or hyper- sensitivity. Consult with your healthcare provider on the best course of action to optimize for a sensory-friendly nutrition plan.

In addition to any sources of caffeine like soda, they may recommend cutting out refined sugars, artificial ingredients, or dairy as well. If your child is taking any medication, it’s a good idea to ask if there are any side effects that can impact bedtime as well. 

Image: Shutterstock/Chubykin Arkady

Other Sleep Disruptors

Keep in mind that there are other concerns that can impact your child’s ability to fall asleep easily.

Sleep apnea if your child seems to have trouble breathing or snores excessively, this could be a sign of pediatric sleep apnea which affects 1 – 4% of children ages 2 to 8.

Restless leg syndrome is another condition that can make it more difficult to sleep at night. A sleep disorder, RLS causes “an uncomfortable and irresistible urge” to move the legs during times of inactivity like nighttime. 35% of these patients report that it started for them before age 20.

Acid reflux in children can also make it difficult to sleep, as they may be experiencing heartburn or even vomiting. Also known as Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER), episodes can be occasional or chronic and are known to be more common in those with Down syndrome or neuromuscular disorders.

Speak to your healthcare provider if you have concerns about these disruptors.

Investigate the bedtime environment

Your child likely won’t be able to tell you everything that’s wrong with their sleeping environment, as it can be difficult to identify and articulate at a young age. The Chaos and the Clutter recommends playing detective in this case: get down on their level and investigate their room from their point of view. This could be a streetlight outside the window that shines in at night, a draft from a vent behind the bed, or a sheet that could potentially feel scratchy.

Sensory-Friendly Tips for Bedtime 

Smell and Breath

  • Make sure all bedding and pajamas have no unwanted smells or residue from scented laundry soap or fabric softener. 
  • If you have a child who is soothed by certain scents, invest in a diffuser that will spread the scent around the room. Lavender has proven to be a calming scent for bedtime, but it can also be cloying for hypersensitive children 
  • Breathing exercises can also potentially help. To make it more fun, try blowing a few bubbles or on pinwheels before bed. This will calm the senses and prepare your child for sleeping.

Touch

Tactile stimulation is known to be an especially important part of children’s’ sensory diets since so much of what we do in life involves our sense of touch.

  • Check your child’s pajamas and bedding for annoying seams or tags and remove them the best you can.
  • Make sure the bedding you’re using isn’t making your child too hot or too cold. The wrong temperature at bedtime can disrupt sleep for anyone, but especially a child with SPD. 
  • For sensory-seekers, try using an electric toothbrush at bedtime for additional sensory input that can help them wind down for bed.
  • Adding a weighted blanket or weighted pillow for added proprioceptive input. For the best recommendation on a weighted blanket, speak with your child’s healthcare provider as they have not yet been proven safe for small children.
  • As a weighted blanket alternative, And Next Comes L recommends a DIY lycra stretchy sheet to offer similar sensations in an inexpensive alternative.
  • Try the Chillow for kids who always want the “cold side” of the pillow
  • Make sure your child’s mattress is providing the proper support for them to sleep. Dips or sags in the bed can create a negative sleeping experience for your child, and if that’s the case, it might be time to invest in a new mattress that will create a proper sleep environment. 
  • Consider a vibrating pillow or vibrating massager under the mattress. For some children, this can provide a positive sensory experience.
  • You can also try a massage at bedtime. Based on what your child needs, you’ll have to do some research on the proper massage to give, but it might be a heavy-pressure massage, or a Qigong Massage (tapping massage).
  • For children who need heavier touches, swaddling them tightly in a blanket can help them to get comfortable, similarly to how a weighted blanket works, but with more flexibility. 
  • If your child needs motion to sleep, consider rocking them. A porch swing, hammock, or yoga swing can provide this sensation for a child and some parents even have their kids sleep in places like this. Just take caution that it’s still a safe space.
Example of Sensory Massage

Image: Shutterstock/Yekatseryna Netuk

Light

  • Limit your child’s electronic device use before bed. Studies have proven that using devices with screens too close to bedtime can negatively affect the quality and length of sleep. Cut your child’s screen usage off at least an hour and a half before bedtime. This also means that it might be a good idea to have your child go to bed earlier. Watching TV before bed can overwhelm the senses, so having the entire house shut everything down earlier can create good habits.
  • Your child might also benefit from a canopy bed or privacy tent. This will keep most of the light and distractions out and create a sense of security. You can also try making a fort in a bunk bed, or a cave in a closet to make a cozy space using blankets and pillows..
  • If your child needs light, however, try a nightlight or other soft lighting in the room. Maybe it’s a string of lights near the ceiling in a muted color so it’s not overwhelming. Red lights at night are the least disturbing to the sleep/wake cycle might be a good option for you

Sound

  • Many parents use a white noise machine or soft music if they either need some kind of noise to sleep, or need something to distract from other household noise.
  • For more sensitive ears, noise-canceling headphones at night might be an effective option.You can also opt to sound-proof the room as a larger-scale effort to make bedtime comfortable.

The Bottom Line

Having a child with sensory processing disorder can be a challenge, but there are so many ways for you all to manage it. Your first plan of action should be to check with your healthcare provider. Together you can come up with a list of ways to create the best environment for your child so they can get a restful night of sleep. Once you have a schedule down, you can continue to build on your routine, and use trial and error to figure out what will work best for your family.