We all know sleep is important for maintaining a healthy, happy lifestyle. Unfortunately, sleep doesn’t always come easy, even to children. Some children, especially those with sensory processing issues and other difficulties, struggle to get to sleep and remain asleep through the night. What’s more, chances are, if your child isn’t sleeping, you aren’t either. The result is a cranky, sleep-deprived child and a cranky, sleep-deprived adult. Here are some strategies for improving your child’s “sleep hygiene,” or habits that promote healthy sleep.
Importance of a bedtime routine:
The first piece of advice that most people get about improving their sleep hygiene is to have a consistent bedtime routine. Maintaining a consistent bedtime routine is one of the best ways to help your child’s body know when it’s time to sleep. They will start to associate a particular time and set of actions with sleeping, which prepares their body for sleep before they even get into bed.
Establishing a routine goes beyond just having a set bedtime and wakeup time (although these should be as consistent as possible as well). A bedtime routine could start as early as a few hours before bed. Before bed, your child will need to brush their teeth, change into their pajamas, potentially take a bath or shower, and partake in whatever calming activities your family chooses. All of these activities should, ideally, be as consistent as possible from night to night. Try to make sure that all of these activities occur in the same order, at the same time, every night to help your child’s body recognize that bedtime is coming up.
Many experts recommend that beds not be used for for any activities other than sleep. If the bed is the place where your child sleeps, but also where they watch YouTube videos, play board games, hear a bedtime story, and do homework, then their body might be confused about what’s happening when it’s time to sleep. Consider moving those activities to a different location to help your child’s body understand that when it’s in bed, it’s time to sleep.
While it may be difficult to establish a highly structured bedtime routine every single night, establishing a routine and sticking to it as much as possible is one of the best ways to decrease sleeplessness for your child.
Using sensory regulation strategies to make a routine effective:
To make your bedtime routine as effective as possible, you might want to consider adding sensory regulation strategies into your normal routine! Sensory regulation refers to the body’s ability to take in information in the form of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, proprioception (the feeling of where the body is in space) and vestibular awareness (a sense of balance and motion). When your body receives sensory information from the environment, that information can wake them up or calm them down.
Everyone’s response to sensory input is different, but generally, children find fast movement activities, like running or jumping jacks, exciting, while “deep pressure” activities, like being wrapped up in blankets, calming. Again, everyone’s different, so for some kids the opposite is true! However, this rule of thumb might be a good place to start: Try getting all of your exciting movement activities out of the way earlier in the day and stop them after dinner time, then, engage in some calming touch activities like a warm bath or massage as you start to get ready for bedtime.
It can be helpful to get a baseline idea of what calms or excites your child, so consider experimenting! Over the course of a few days, you can try out different activities and see how your child reacts to them. Is your child more active when you sing to them, or does it calm them down? Do they get energized by drinking a cool glass of water, or less? Here are some activities you could try to get a handle on your child’s personal preferences and responses.
Generally calming activities:
-Being “squished” under pillows, or a weighted blanket, or having blankets wrapped tightly around them
-Taking a warm bath
-Chewing chew toys or gum
Generally energizing activities:
-Fast moving like running, jumping, or swinging
-Chewing something crunchy
-Drinking a cold glass of water
-Seeing bright lights, like a computer or television screen
-Hearing loud noises, including loud music
Once you know how your child responds to input, try to build a schedule that comprises of more energizing activities earlier in the day, then transitions to calming activities before bed. You can also try to incorporate these types of sensory input into activities you’re already doing; for example, if you usually read a book before bed, try having your child chew a chewy while you’re reading! This will help ensure you can develop a routine that’s effective for your individual child.
Other strategies for improving sleep hygiene:
If you’ve already implemented a sleep routine that incorporates calming input and your child is still having difficulties getting to sleep there are some other basic sleep hygiene techniques to try. Here are just some strategies you can use with your child to encourage appropriate sleeping habits:
-Make sure your child’s room is conducive to sleep. In general, people sleep better in environments that don’t have a lot of alerting light, aren’t too warm, are quiet and don’t have a lot of toys and objects to be distracted by. Your child’s room should be dark, cool, quiet, and uncluttered.
-Turn off screens before bed. TVs, cell phones, tablets, and computer screens produce blue light that tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime. Try to limit your child’s screen time in the evening and stop all screen access for about an hour before bed. Once your child is in bed, take all screens out of their room to remove the temptation to get out of bed and start playing.
-Get enough exercise during the day. Children need a lot of movement to remain healthy and in control of their bodies! Make sure they have a lot of time outside, and a lot of time moving and playing before you start your calming routine after dinner.
Questions or concerns
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s sleep or sensory regulation, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 773-332-9439.
Corrine Pratt, OT Student
Occupational Therapy Fieldwork Student
Photo credit: Simon Berger on Upsplash