Does your child have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep? Here are a few sensory tips you can do during the day, an hour before bedtime, or just before bedtime that may help.
Ahh bed time. The calming sounds of “brush your teeth!”, “get your pajamas on!”, “Get out of the bath!”, “Get your foot out of your sister's face!”.
I don’t know about you but when I go to bed I like to wind down. I do my routine, get my jammies on, read a book or watch TV, then curl up all snuggly and dream of having 5 minutes of uninterrupted sleep.
My kids, however, have a different idea of bed time. Getting to bed can be one of the most stressful times during the day. Or evening I should say. And if that obstacle of GETTING to bed is overcome then STAYING asleep can be an issue as well. This can be true for a lot of kids but it’s especially true for kids with sensory struggles. Having autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD often comes with severe sensory difficulties. Difficulties that get in the way of functioning in everyday life and sleep is a very serious issue for many families.
If you are one of those families then you know the hardship of getting to bed and staying asleep better than anyone. Not only is it so hard on your poor kiddos but it is a strain on yourself to go through struggles nightly. Plus the pain of seeing your own little one battle with not sleeping very well just breaks your heart.
There are so many thoughts and plenty of resources on a better bedtime routine and sleep. If this is something you are struggling with please seek the medical help of a dr. and other professionals in this field. From here on out I will suggest sensory strategies that will help with the symptoms of sleep. If a child is chronically not sleeping it is possible that sensory strategies will not solve the root of the problem but they could help soften the issue to make it more manageable.
Before Bed Time
Periodically throughout the day, 1 hour before bedtime, or just before bedtime.
First off, the usual; no screens about an hour before bed. I might even say two hours. Disconnecting our eyes from the virtual world and using our bodies in the real world does wonders for the nervous system which is in charge of sleep.
Second, I always promote an active day filled with movement. A tired body can sometimes be the answer to an active mind. An active body also ensures plenty of VESTIBULAR, PROPRIOCEPTIVE, and TACTILE input which are key ingredients to a calm nervous system.
Most of these activities involve vestibular input (movement of the head) and active muscle use. This is all combined with linear (straight line) movement while being rhythmic. The other is tactile. That is deep pressure or light touch. All of this helps the nervous system get grounded and reset to get to a calm and organized place.
Strap swing: Gentle rhythmic linear swinging can help calm the nervous before bedtime. If you have access to a swing then this is something that I recommend. Sitting on a strap swing like the ones you find at a park are a bit more of an active swing. I suggest doing this about an hour before the bedtime process and duration would depend on your kiddo. Anywhere from 10 min to an hour for some kids. Strap swings require muscle use so think of this as a workout while getting rhythmic, linear, vestibular input. Avoid spinning!
Hammock/sensory swing: A hammock or sensory swing often doesn't require much active muscle use and promotes a more chill vibe. Kids can kick back and relax with a book, audio book, or even watch something. Having one in a bedroom can be great and often kids actually fall asleep in here. I happen to have one over each of my kids beds and they rock themselves or I rock them while reading a book then just slip them right in the bed below with minimal disruptive transition. Things like hammocks, lycra swings, tear drops, and platform swings are all great.
Yoga/therapy ball: I still don’t know the difference between a yoga or therapy ball but a large rubber inflatable ball can be a great way to get some bouncing. This is also a little more active than passive swinging so I suggest doing this about an hour before bedtime. If you're watching TV then instead of the couch have your kids bop around on this. Sitting and bouncing or even laying on it and rolling are good ways to get rhythmic input.
Trampoline: This is very active so again, about an hour before bedtime. It is such a good workout! It’s also linear (up and down) and an added bonus of joint compressions which can be very calming.
Couch or bed: If it’s OK with you to have your kids jump on your furniture then this can be an excellent way to get all that vestibular, rhythmic, and linear input while active muscle use. Especially if you don’t have any of that stuff listed above.
3. Deep Pressure
Jump and crash: The jump and crash provides that IMPACT kids sometimes need to feel OK. That is the tactile system getting involved to help the nervous system get set. Using the trampoline, the bed, or the couch are excellent things to launch off of. Just make sure they land on something soft like a crash pad, cushions, or lots of pillows.
Crush: Getting crushed can feel really really good! It’s also very calming and reduces cortisol and increases serotonin in the brain (serotonin is the sleep chemical). Using bean bags, pillows, or lots of cushions to smoosh a kid is a fun activity to do an hour before bed. Wrestling with your kid with lots of bear hugs can be fun but that often jacks up the alert level. Think along the lines of slow motion wrestling with pillow squish breaks. Make sure they can breathe!
4. Light Touch
Brushing: Sometimes taking a hair brush and combing around the skin can be very calming. Just a heads up that light touch can also be very alerting! If brushing the back or the hair, brush down towards the ground. Brushing up is more alerting.
Sensory Bath: Everyone knows that taking a warm bath can generally make most people sleep better afterwards. But take it step further by lowering the lights or even turning them off completely. Using things that glow in the dark or having groovy soft lights in the bathroom while playing calming music can add to the chill experience.
5. Heavy work
Heavy work is activity using muscles. Anytime we exercise or move weight in some way we are releasing serotonin and dopamine. Two chemicals that help organize our brain and help us sleep. As well when we move muscles we reduce cortisol. That’s the high octane fuel we need when we are stressed. This is why being active and moving bodies a large part of the day is so good for a calm brain.
Oral Motor: Mouth movement stuff is awesome because it’s a very calm way to get heavy work. Especially using something like a bubble jug.This is filling a jug or bowl with soapy water then blowing into it through a straw. It’s totally fun and totally relaxing as well. Just watch out for drinking it by accident!
Gross Motor Play: Ok, this is vague I know. All this means is doing something active with our bodies about an hour before bedtime. BUT there is a difference between giong for a walk and doing something like an obstacle course in the living room. A walk could work just as well but there is not a lot of moving weight when walking. Whereas an obstacle course involves jumping, pushing, climbing, pulling, crawling. This is much more heavy than just taking a walk. If the kiddo isn’t into the obstacle course, find some way for them to move weight. Maybe carry a backpack with rocks on their walk.
6. Weighted objects
Things like weighted blankets and pillows can help while sleeping. Weighted blankets can get hot so sometimes pillows can be spread out and not cover the whole body.
Compression Sheet: A compression sheet is cool because it’s not as hot as a weighted blanket. Also some kids like the squeeze better than the dead weight. You can find these online or also just order tubular lycra on Amazon.
Compression Clothes: You can also try compression clothes like a Spio. These can be expensive and a good second is thrift store long underwear that is one or two sizes too small.
Rythmic Noise: Background noise or noise blocking: White noise, ocean sounds, even clocks ticking can help the brain find rhythm.
Muffle Noise: Sometimes blocking out all noise is best. Using ear plugs can help muffle sounds that might wake a kiddo up. Experimenting with a few or even asking your kid to see which one works the best.
Night light or blackout: Similar to the noise, experimenting with lava lamps, groovy lights, night lights, or maybe blackout curtains can help. Groovy lights are calming to the eyes while staying away from blinking.
Essential Oils: The use of essential oils or even comforting smells like a kiddo’s favorite cooking can have a powerful effect on the nervous system. Things like lavender, bay leaf, or other aromatherapies can be useful. This seems to be trial and error but many clients attest to using this..
Things like magnesium can be rubbed on the skin and has a soothing effect for sleep.
What Causes You To Have Trouble Sleeping?
There are so many reasons why someone is having trouble sleeping. Sometimes it’s an overactive mind. Sometimes it’s stress or trauma. Sometimes it’s because our bodies and brains are out of sync. I find that many times incorporating large gross motor, linear, and rhythmic activities does help calm the nervous system and can help with slowing us down. Kids moving and playing during the day is like going to the gym. But with someone struggling with processing sensory input, being intentional about those activities can make a big difference.
Sleep is crucial to functioning in life. And lack of sleep puts in a further state of fight or flight throughout the day which makes it harder to sleep and can lead to more health problems. It’s a vicious cycle and one that should be looked at carefully from all health care professionals you have as a resource for your child.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Founder of Sensory Fitness. As an occupational therapy assistant, personal trainer, and special education teacher Matt Sloan has directed his experience into specialized fitness programs for everyone while catering to sensory difficulties, neurodiversity, or any special need. Matt also brings sensory education and strategies to educators, parents, fitness professionals, and anyone working with a sensory difficulties to provide sensory strategies, create sensory friendly environments, and promote the importance of movement in learning and everyday activities.