For kids who have trouble sleeping, sensory techniques designed to calm and organize the body can be helpful. In fact, many of the same techniques and methods we use to calm a newborn or infant can be adapted for use with older kids to help them fall asleep more easily and hopefully stay asleep through the night.
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Today, we’re taking on sleep as part of a new year-long series with 9 other awesome Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy bloggers about the Functional Skills of Childhood! Last month, we took a closer look at preventing tantrums using transition strategies. Be sure to check out what our other therapist friends had to say about all of the complex skills involved in kids’ school day functions!
Sensory-Friendly Tips for Kids Who Have Trouble Sleeping
Still adjusting to life outside the womb, newborn babies are very sensitive to light, sound, 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.
Luckily, we have a whole slew of tried and true strategies that we use to target babies’ sensory needs, helping to calm them and get them to sleep (e.g. swaddling, rocking). But many little ones continue to struggle with sleep problems into toddlerhood and beyond.
Read on to learn about some simple sensory friendly strategies that any parent can use to help calm a child at bedtime – because a well-rested kid is a happy kid!
One of the first things new parents learn at the hospital is how to swaddle their little bundle of joy because snugly wrapping a baby in a blanket provides calming tactile and proprioceptive input all over the body, making the child feel secure and safe.
What to do at bedtime:
-Use heavy blankets or quilts at night or try a weighted blanket
–Check out The Sleep Sleeve! It’s a weighted blanket alternative that offers customizable, calming compression to help children achieve restful sleep.
-Play a game of “Kiddo Burrito” before bed, rolling your kiddo up tight for a few minutes in a blanket
-Provide firm all-over pressure by hugging your little one on your lap while reading before bed
-Give firm squishes to the body with a bean bag chair or pillow
-Try a few minutes in a cocoon swing or a beanbag chair
Show us a new mother and we’ll show you someone who has mastered the art of doing just about anything using only one hand, because babies LOVE to be held. Why? Being in someone’s arms provides tons of positive sensory benefits, including the relaxing effect of body heat.
What to do at bedtime:
-Place a warm rice pillow in bed or try a Cozy Plush microwaveable stuffed animal
-Pop blankets or comforters in the dryer for a few minutes before bed
-Zipping up inside a bedding set from Beddy’s is perfect for keeping little bodies cozy and warm!
–The Sleep Sleeve is another great way to keep little bodies cozy and warm while still offering a breathable option.’
Parents and caregivers of babies can often be heard making that familiar “shushing” noise or quietly humming to quiet and calm their little ones. These repetitive, quiet sounds mimic the calming, reassuring noises the baby heard when they were inside their mother – the sound of her heartbeat, and the sound of her muffled voice.
White noise 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.
What to do at bedtime:
-Place a white noise machine in the child’s room or try the Sleep Sheep, a stuffed animal with a white noise device inside
-Install a ceiling fan or place a regular fan in the child’s room
-Download a white noise app for your phone or other device
Rocking chairs and baby swings are most parents’ most prized pieces of “baby equipment” because repetitive, rhythmic rocking, swaying, and swinging provide calming vestibular input to the nervous system, helping children relax.
What to do at bedtime:
-With the child resting on his stomach on an exercise ball, slowly rock him back and forth for a few minutes before bed
-Read books in a rocking chair as part of the bedtime routine
-Try one of these Row, Row, Row Your Boat vestibular activities for kids, using a slow, steady pace
Nearly every baby crib toy on the market has an underwater theme. Many of them come with the option to play “ocean sounds” (see the section on Sound, above) but these toys also come with the perk of soothing, repetitive visual stimulation.>
Watching flowing water, fish gliding through an aquarium, or even a crackling campfire often has a “mesmerizing effect” on kids and adults alike. Focusing on soothing visual input can help many children relax and fall asleep.
What to do at bedtime:
-Spend a few minutes watching fish glide through the water in an aquarium or try an aquarium DVD or app
-Try using a lava lamp as a night light
-Avoid cartoons, busy electronic toys that light up, and video games before bedtime
What are your best tricks for getting little ones to fall asleep at night? We’d love to hear your ideas! Leave a comment below.
This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids series. Check out each of the posts about the development of functional skills from The Inspired Treehouse here.
Task Analysis – Independent Bathing in Children | Your Therapy Source
Tips and Tricks for Teaching Hand Washing with Kids | Growing Hands-On Kids
I can brush my teeth! Tips for Tooth Brushing and Oral Care! | Your Kids OT
Screen Free Quiet Time When Daytime Naps are History | Kids Play Space
Tips to Help Kids Learn How to Blow Their Nose | Sugar Aunts
Tips to Help Kids Who Hate Haircuts | Mama OT
Sensory Friendly Tips for Kids Who Have Trouble Sleeping | The Inspired Treehouse
Your Child With Special Needs: How to Conquer Showering Independently | Miss Jaime OT
Adolescent Hygiene Challenges | Therapy Fun Zone
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I thought I invented the “kiddo burrito” lol. Both of my ADHD boys love being rolled into a burrito at night. Also, they love having stuffed toys in bed with them and they have dreamlites that they can watch as they lay down at night.
Hi Alicia! So happy to meet another fan of the “kiddo burrito”! :) It’s the perfect calming activity before bed, isn’t it? Light-up toys are another great calming idea! It’s great to hear about parents using these techniques successfully with their kids! Thanks so much for your comment!
Natasha @ AnxiousToddlers says
This are some great ideas to help kids with sensory issues sleep!
Thanks so much Natasha! Glad you’ve found some helpful information here! :)
I have found both my daughters love gentle stroking across their forehead, the side of their face or down the bridge of their nose. My youngest loves the pressure of my cheek on her forehead or a pillow against the top of her head while settling off to sleep.
Hi Greta! Thanks for sharing the things that work best for your kids at bedtime! I love the idea that parents often find their own little sensory “tricks” that are specific to their own children. So cool! :)
I love this! We do most of these things every single night with our SPD toddler. She loves “making tents” in bed, which is us just wrapping her up under the sheets, much like the kiddie burrito!
Great types! This was very helpful, Sometimes, kids can feel very uncomfortable in bed and they can’t sleep due to this and I think all this tips are really good to help the kid and the mom.
Susan VanDenHoek says
We use a lot of the same things you do, but what works best for us is the routine. We start with essential oils on the bottom of their feet (serenity and lavender to calm them) followed by night time prayers, being tucked in with their weighted blankets and being read the same story every night. Without the exact routine (and exact same story lol) it takes a long long time to get them to sleep. Once their routine is done and the book is read they are all out like a light.
Great tips! I’m going to try that lava lamp idea for myself as well! ;)
Great Emma! So glad these tips are useful for you! And yes – lava lamps can be calming and mesmerizing for kids (and adults too! :)
Having a set routine is inherently organizing. Ours included brushing teeth, PJs, a story, prayers and a song (kids got to take turns picking their favorites). We also had a “check off” sheet posted on the wall–one dressing and teeth were checked off, story and the rest was “earned.” The system worked well for my boys.
Love the lava lamp idea, and the aquarium app!
Passing this on to a student’s patents via his teacher–thnx!
Joanne C Timpano, OTR
Thank you so much for your comment! We agree, having a routine is an awesome way to keep bedtime running smoothly. So happy that these ideas were helpful to you and that you’ll be able to share them with a student’s family! :)
My son wakes up really easy when he is going through a light sleep period. He is still sleeping in my room so I decided to try the white noise. I didn’t know somewhere to have a good view of white noise machine as well as where to buy but now I found it. He is up love white noise machine. it is a must have.
Moonlit Minds says
Love all these interesting sensory ideas! We’ll have to try some of these too. Would love to connect with you and see whether we can collaborate at all.
Great suggestions! I love the warmth idea (even for myself with our cold winters)! I find sticking with a very consistent routine is super helpful in maintaining healthy sleep patterns for children.
Cindy@Your Kids OT says
Wonderful tips! I have also heard that lycra bed sheets are also great for kiddos with sensory issues when sleeping.
Great post! Settling for sleep has been one of our BIGGEST (yes – capital letters!!) challenges in our house. We have had to try EVERYTHING (yes, possibly everything!!!) – Even for non “sensory kids” – these strategies above are excellent!
Heather, Growing Hands-On Kids says
So many great ideas, I will have to try some with my 4 year old who seems to be allergic to sleep, HA!
Christie @ Mama OT says
Excellent tips! I do have to say I don’t like the Sleep Sheep, at least not for babies. When we used ours 5 years ago, I learned that the maximum time the white noise will play is 48 minutes…which happens to be basically the same time babies are transitioning sleep cycles, so the white noise would stop right around sleep cycle transition time and baby would wake up pretty much on the dot! It was so frustrating. For babies and older kids, based on my experience, I’d recommend white noise that can either run all night or can be put on a longer timer. I love the free “Dreampad” app, which can be set for a timer on your smartphone for up to 24 hours, and it has several different “themes” of white noise to choose from (nature, classical, ocean, etc.). It’s affiliated with the Integrated Listening Systems (iLs) program (but the app is free) and I’ve had great success with it helping both my own kids nap/sleep at night as well as pediatric clients I work with who have sleep difficulties.
I love sneaking sensory strategies into our bedtime routines! This is an excellent resource for parents and practitioners.
I have tried a set for Beddys and it actually worked well…I was glad that you mentioned it here
Hi! I would love to know if you can recommend a weighted blanked. I also would like to know since what age could be used ?
Anna Stone says
Amazing post, you have helped my family so much! My children are now able to sleep through the night, and that has made a huge difference in our everyday life. My husband and I are getting enough sleep, and our anxiety has disappeared. The whole family is in a great mood, and while we are all getting enough sleep, we tend to go out and have fun more!
Tania M Piedra Granados says
We are in the phase of learn g what is going on…he doesn’t have a speech issue check that off but now the school physiologist will be in his class to evaluate ourv4 year old..we have such a hard time with baths ,naps,sharing paying attention etc..its hard because this is completely different from out other 3 child’s..
I have been wrapping him like a new born and it works..when I first did it it felt like magic seriously a blessing.if not he can go on and on without a nap and full of energy.
Thank you for this web site..it helps to know we are not alone
Thank you for the post, I would focus more on the good posture of my kids.
The thing that made the difference for us was keeping the bedroom cold. Not too cold, just enough so that staying under a pile of blankets is the most appealing activity. ??
Great tips. Its good also to treat insomia naturally by investing on some food supplements or herbs,do your research on the best.
Phebe Loyton says
Great article! Very informative and helpful. Thanks
Jerry Woods says
I liked your tip of giving firm squishes to a pillow to help your child sleep. My wife and I are having our son soon and we were wondering how we will get him to sleep once he is born. I’ll be sure to tell her that we should plump up the pillow before he sleeps.
Thanks for sharing these really helpful tips! Please keep sharing more