We ALL need sleep, so when our child is not sleeping, it affects the whole family!
As parents we are somewhat prepared for the sleep exhaustion that comes along with a newborn, but what we struggle with is when our babies won’t nap, seem to fight falling asleep, need the comfort of mom/dad next to them to fall and stay asleep, nurse for hours before bedtime and during the night, needing to be rocked/bounced/shushed to sleep, and/or the 3am ‘party/play-time’. And those struggles become even harder when our 6+ month old, or even toddler, is still not ‘sleeping through the night’.
Sleep plays an important role in supporting brain function, resting muscles and joints, and regulating our circadian rhythm and our arousal level throughout the day. We know that poor sleep negatively impacts almost every area of functioning and development, especially mood, behaviour, and self-regulation.
Once born, a baby has to adjust to life outside the womb, and newborns are very sensitive to light, sounds, and movement. Their nervous systems have not yet matured enough to be able to regulate their responses to these types of stimuli and they are often not able to soothe themselves or lull themselves to sleep. Until 6 months old, a baby needs mom/dad for support and to help them regulate. But, many of our little people continue to struggle with sleep problems past this 6-month mark, and well into their toddler years and beyond.
In some cases, poor sleep can also be an indicator of sensory processing difficulties, and those kids with sensory processing differences AND poor sleep, often have their challenges magnified!
Sensory Processing is the way the body receives, analyzes, and responds to signals it receives from its environment.
We have to remember that a baby and young child’s sensory system is still developing and he/she is still learning how to regulate his/her body within this world. They are still young, and things might eventually just sort themselves out, but if these things seem to be impeding his/her daily functioning, then there is a cause/reason to intervene and try to help his/her body along in terms of figuring out how to process all this information coming in. This hard work that he/she is doing throughout the day to try to regulate his body and make sense of things may be affecting his ability to calm and settle enough at night in order to get to sleep.
As an individual prepares to sleep, they are consistently surrounded by several types of sensations, including the amount and type of lighting in the room, noises within and outside the room, how the sheet feels on their bodies, among others.
While attempting to process the diverse sensations around us as we try to fall asleep, different people have their own unique capacity to observe, respond to and become exasperated by these sensations around them (Dunn, 2001).
Our experiences in preparation for sleep are not the only thing that can affect our sleep……the ENTIRE day can impact our sleep at night!
Here are a few examples of what might affect us as adults, and particularly the little people in our lives:
1. Overtired - This one is for the really little people in our lives! Over-tiredness can happen if baby/toddler has been up for much too long since their last nap. The concept of watching 'wake windows' (how much time your baby/young child spends awake in between naps) can be a key player in preventing over-tiredness and help with sleep. In the first year of life, the wake windows are likely much shorter than you think! (usually only about 45-60 minutes by age 2-3 months).
2. Overstimulation during the day (ie. big social event, loud/crowded spaces, too much touch, too much movement, new challenging experiences, etc)
- Overstimulation from the day can lead to a difficult time calming the body enough to settle to sleep at night.
- Sometimes overstimulation from the day can be so exhausting that your child has a longer afternoon nap, which might also disrupt sleep at night.
3. Under-stimulation – if the child is under-stimulated (or perhaps requires more than average stimulation to keep their body alert) then the body was essentially in a calm, ‘sleep mode’ all day and may ready for play in the evening.
4. New milestones being learned and reached (ie. rolling over, sitting up, learning to crawl, standing up, learning to walk, babbling, etc). Learning is consolidated in our brains while we sleep – so it is no wonder that babies like to practice these in their sleep.
5. Nutrition can impact sleep
- Make sure baby is getting enough milk/formula during the day (taking it from an open cup when they are over 6+ months if needed)
- Rule out dairy allergy (or gluten, or other allergies). Many formulas have dairy in them, and if breastfeeding, mom may need to look at her own diet.
- Once on solids – ensure your toddler is getting plenty of protein and fruits/veggies; ¯ carbs/sugar (it is surprising how much sugar is in yogurt, juice, and packaged baby/toddler snacks these days…)
6. Rule out medical causes
- Reflux is an issue that can cause issues with sleep – rule this out with your child’s doctor
- Snoring or making a lot of noises at night might also be a sign of sleep apnea
- Both of these symptoms may be exaccerbated by dairy consumption and/or intolerance and should be discussed with your doctor and/or naturopath/nutritionist
When children (and adults) are overwhelmed by sensory input, there are 3 main ways they may react – Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
These occur due to our body’s sympathetic nervous system going into overdrive, and seeing stimulation as a ‘threat’, which sends our body into stress response and increases our cortisol levels in order to react with either fight (getting irritable, angry, tantrums or rages), flight (nervous, anxious, panicky, running away or avoiding the situation), or freeze (ie. ‘shutting down’ due to the overwhelm, sometimes falling asleep). In this state, the body is essentially having a neurological ‘panic’ response to everyday sensations the rest of us take for granted.
Tips and Tricks
REMEMBER…..each child is different and depending on what is going on with their particular sensory system (ie. if they are over or under registering various types of sensory inputs), and can change on a DAILY basis. Some general strategies to help with calming throughout the day can include:
Children (and adults) thrive on routine and having a predictable, familiar routine can make a child feel safe and secure. Having a bedtime routine that is consistent every night (ie. same time, same order of activities, same amount of books read, same songs sung, same good night words) can do wonders to help soothe a child, signal to them that it is night time and now time for sleep, and allow their system to calm down and relax enough to sleep.
One of the first things we figure out (or are taught as new parents) is how to swaddle our baby because snugly wrapping a baby in a blanket provides calming tactile and proprioceptive input all over the body, making the child feel safe and secure. Some other ways to provide deep pressure are:
- Bear hugs, 'hug squeezes' (firm hugs with your hands to the arms and legs), massage with firm pressure (with or without lotion) to the arms and legs
- Pillow squishes, making a ‘kiddo burrito’ (wrapping your baby snugly in a blanket and then rolling them out), crawling, and rolling
- Weighing down the sleep sac (or stuffing it with little stuffed animals to give that 'hugging' sensation) or having a weighted blanket could work as well....or even just a weighted stuffy that child can hold while sleeping.
The midline of the body is very soothing – getting heavy work through the mouth and also anything in midline is calming and organizing to the nervous system (ie. sucking on pacifier, chewing on something, even drinking from the breast/bottle, sucking through a straw, blowing party favour or bubbles through a straw, etc)
Movement (vestibular) input
Some of our favourite ‘baby gadgets’ are baby swings, bouncy chair, and rocking chairs, which work to soothe our babies due to the repetitive, gentle, linear, and rhythmic rocking, swaying, and swinging motion, which provide calming vestibular input to the nervous system, and help our babies relax.
- Slowly rock your child over an exercise ball (either sitting up or on their tummy) for a few minutes before bed
- Read books in a rocking chair as part of the bedtime routine.
Sound (Auditory) Input
As parents we know that the familiar “shushing” noise, or quiet humming can help to quiet and calm our little ones. These repetitive, quiet, sounds mimic the calming and reassuring sounds the baby heard from inside the womb (ie. sound of mom’s heartbeat, sound of mom’s muffled voice)
- White noise (from a sound machine, ceiling or regular fan, humidifier, or white/pink noise app) can be calming for many children (and even adults) as they’re trying to fall asleep and it also blocks out other sounds that might startle or wake them.
- Getting some 'heavy work' through the joints and muscles - pushing/pulling things around, crawling, lots of floor play, down dog/up dog yoga poses
- Decrease stimulation and start some quieter activities even before bedtime - limit use of toys that make noise or have bright lights a few hours before bed time, dim the lights in the living room if playing there before bed, having some quiet music playing in background (nature sounds, classical, think yoga type music)
- Limit screen time throughout the day and turn it off at least 1 hour before bedtime
- Essential Oils and Aromatherapy - rub some Lavender, Frankincense, or Chamomile onto bottoms of feet, sheets and/or pjs. Put some lavender into a diffuser in the bedroom.
Those are a few general strategies that can benefit many kids....but again, every child is different and without knowing their sensory profile, it is hard to specifically give examples that will work for everyone.
When children demonstrate significant sensory processing concerns, as is the case if they qualify for a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), they may require assessment and intervention designed by an occupational therapist or other medical professional. If you have any questions or concerns about your child's sleep and/or sensory challenges, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chaves, J. (2016) The Relationship between Sensory Processing and Sleep. http://www.thecenterforconnection.org/blog/.
Dunn, W. (2001). The sensations of everyday life: Empirical, theoretical, pragmatic considerations. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 55(6), 608-619.
Faure, M and Richardson, A (2010). Baby Sense.
Sleep tips for those with Sensory Processing Disorder http://thesensoryseeker.com/2014/05/31/sleep-tips-sensory-processing-disorder/