Sensory Issues and Sleep

Claire Walley
January 16, 2024

Imagine a long day at work or school, dealing with the stresses of the day and returning home shattered looking forward to a good night’s sleep. But instead of settling down amongst your soft, downy sheets, you are instead laying on a sharp, itchy, rough surface that is physically hurting you. The night light, intended to lull you into a deep sleep is twitching and hurting your eyes.

The pyjamas, loving bought by grandparents are squeezing your ankles and waist and the collar, let’s not get started on the button-down collar! So, when you next hear a parent, friend, colleague, or child complain about not getting a good sleep, take time to think and not make a fleeting comment – “Oh just leave him, he’ll go to sleep eventually”, “Have you tried white noise?”, “Sounds like attention seeking, do you let him have screens before bed?”

Going to sleep is not always easy for our children, especially those with sensory issues and we as parents need to understand, validate, and find strategies to support our children’s sensory needs as they go to bed.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information. Sensory information includes things you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Typically, you’re overly sensitive to stimuli that other people are not. But the disorder can cause the opposite effect, too. In these cases, it takes more stimuli to impact you. In 2017, it was predicted that 5-16% of children in the US had Sensory Processing Disorder by CHADD. Children are more likely than adults to have Sensory Processing Disorder.

Children may refer to/display the following if they have sensory processing disorder:

  • Say clothes are tight, itchy, or hurt
  • Light hurts their eyes.
  • Sounds are too loud and hurt their ears.
  • That gentle touch hurts them.
  • Dislike certain food textures and at times can gag.
  • Lack coordination and balance.
  • Are upset by sudden movements, touches, loud noises, or bright lights.
  • Have behaviour problems.
  • Find sleeping a challenge.

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder may also display sensory seeking behaviour, as they try to meet their sensory needs. This can present itself in many ways with behaviour such as fidgeting, making themselves dizzy, chewing non-food items or seeking visual stimulation through electronics.

If you are concerned that your child may have Sensory Processing Disorder, you should speak to your doctor or school’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) about having them referred to an Occupational Therapist. Once diagnosed there are therapies and Occupational Therapy support that will help your child manage their sensory needs. Sensory Integration Therapy is an example of one such therapy. This type of therapy uses fun activities in a controlled environment. With the therapist, your child experiences stimuli without feeling overwhelmed. He or she can develop coping skills for dealing with those stimuli. Through this therapy, these coping skills can become a regular, everyday response to stimuli.

Nevertheless, we are all aware of the huge cuts to the special education sector and probably know someone who has been on a lengthy waiting list to get the diagnosis for their child.

So, what proactive steps can you take right away to support your child’s sensory needs and help them get to sleep?

Providing your child with a ‘Sensory Diet’ can work wonders in helping them learn to independently manage their sensory needs. A Sensory Diet is a series of activities to help your child stay focused and calm throughout the day, so that their sensory needs are less likely to cause them discomfort.

You will need to work with your child to design a sensory diet that works for them, but some examples of activities include:

  • Movement breaks – going for a 10-minute walk at regular intervals throughout the day.
  • Listening to headphones – to block out sound or to listen to soothing sounds.
  • Using a fidget toy.
  • Attaching a bungee cord to their chair so they can bounce their legs, whilst having to sit still.

Sensory Diets can also be specifically designed to support bedtime. Sensory seekers often relax if they feel pressure on their body. Using weighted blankets or a heavy material for bed linen can help soothe them. Consider the textures your child is coming across at bedtime. A linen bedspread may look lovely but imagine the sensation of that on your child’s skin! Work with your child to select any fabrics they will come across at bedtime. Fine cottons often work well, or materials that feel cool to the touch.

Massage can ease children’s sensory issues before bed and is a relaxing experience for them as your read together or talk about your day. In addition, if your child benefits from the use of a fidget in the day, give them something to fidget with at night. A favourite toy or even a piece of your clothing (which will smell like you) can give comfort.

As with all children, a bedtime routine is key. Work with your child to design the routine, talking about the sensory input at each stage. Would they like their bedroom to be fully lit, or have a night light? Would they like to wear slippers as they walk up the stairs or do, they like the feel of the flooring on their feet? Do they find the sensation of water soothing or would they prefer to wash in the morning? Do they want lots of pillows on their bed to nestle into or none at all?

All these choices need to be made with your child and making them part of the process will give them ownership of their sensory diet – making it more likely to work.

Making use of a sensory diet at bedtime has been proven to have a positive impact on a child’s sleep. So, when you are next struggling to button up your child’s pyjamas or get them to walk up the seagrass carpeted stairs, take a moment to see the world through your senses. Some simple edits to your bedtime rituals, from a sensory standpoint, could mean a good night’s sleep for your little one and (mostly importantly) you. A rested parent is a stronger parent!

We are really excited that this blog has been written in partnership with The Parent and Baby Sleep Coach – check out our blog and her wonderful resources via this link: https://www.theparentandbabycoach.com/sensory-issues-and-sleep

The SEN Expert offers a range of services for young people, families and schools. We offer support for parents to help navigate the complex world of Special Educational Needs. We will work with you closely to ensure the best for your child.

The SEN Expert was set up by Claire in 2021 following a successful career spanning 12 years in school improvement, special educational needs, safeguarding and the arts.

Claire has worked as a Deputy Headteacher, Assistant Headteacher, Consultant and SENCO in both state and private schools in inner city London, the Southwest, the Midlands and the USA.

Throughout her career, Claire has ensured solid outcomes for the young people she has worked with. Be that a set of good exam grades, a placement in specialist setting or getting a part time job.

Claire is a working mother, and understands the challenges parents face trying to ensure their children are happy and successful. We aim to provide young people with a creative route to the personal and professional adult life they deserve.

Claire sits outside a café with a laptop

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We offer support for families, children, and schools to navigate the complex world of SEN.

Check out our full list of services at our website www.thesenexpert.co.uk or follow us on Instagram @senexpert for daily advice on special educational needs.

The SEN Expert is a company registered in England and Wales with company number 13523478.