As parents of tweens and teens with ADHD and related sensory issues, we’ve often struggled with trying to find the most effective ways to get them the sleep they need. Kids need that good night’s sleep to help regulate their moods and to be able to deal with all the challenges of school and socialization that come with middle school and high school. Too little sleep causes problems with mental functioning and childhood development. Even in adults, lack of sleep harms brain function, muscle recovery, and mood.
We’ve gathered together some of the best tips from parents who have dealt with this issue. You’ll find refined bedtime routines, sensory inputs like weighted blankets, and cocooning techniques that can help your child get the sleep they need. Keep reading to learn more about how to get a sensory seeker to sleep.
Signs of Dysfunctional Sleeping?
Sleep issues in children may often be a sign of a potential sensory processing disorder. These are some common signs of dysfunctional sleep patterns:
- taking an excessive amount of time to settle down for sleep mode (anything more than 30 minutes is excessive)
- having an extended period of time before actually falling asleep once settled (anything more than 15-20 minutes)
- frequently changing positions and/or rearranging bedding
- physically getting out of bed frequently during the night
- routinely getting less than the recommended amount of sleep (10-12 hours for kids; 8-9 hours for teens)
How Sensory Issues Affect Sleep
Some children with Autism and ADHD also have sensory processing disorders and struggle with bedtime. It takes them longer to fall asleep, and they are often the first to wake in the morning, rarely getting their recommended amount of sleep.
When a child has difficulty processing and responding to the world around him, he may experience dysregulation. This means that he may feel overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells around him. And these may be sights and sounds that would not otherwise noticeable to you but may be overwhelming to your sensory-seeking child. Like noise from the automatic icemaker (on the other side of the house) or a neighbor’s barking dog.
Don’t assume that your kid is creating stories as an excuse to avoid bedtime. Operate as if what they are saying is true and adopt a strategy to address it. For instance, you may have a child who often complains about crumbs in the bed. You see nothing and feel nothing, and are quite certain there’s no logical reason for crumbs to have mysteriously appeared in the sheets. You may be inclined to think he’s making it up. Don’t. This is likely a sign of tactile sensitivity. Tactile sensitivity is strongly associated with sleep difficulties.
Just because you don’t feel something weird doesn’t mean that the different sensations someone else experiences aren’t real and legitimate.
Also, a child with sensory issues may generally have difficulty self-soothing or calming down, something that is critical to falling asleep.
A child with sensory issues may also experience a dysregulation in the neurochemicals in the brain that affect sleep.
Melatonin and cortisol are two neurochemicals in the brain that impact sleep. Melatonin is a neurochemical that helps your body feel tired. Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases when we feel stressed or anxious – think fight or flight stressors. Cortisol also increases when someone is overstimulated.
A child with sensory issues may experience dysregulation as to these neurochemicals – producing less melatonin and more cortisol in the evening.
Strategies for How To Get A Sensory Seeker To Sleep
You can do some things to help cut down on the triggering issues and help your sensory seeker get to sleep.
Tips For Making Bedroom More Sleep-Enhancing
A calm space will help a restless sleeper settle faster and encourage better sleep, but with sensory seekers, there are a few other things to consider. You need to fulfill their sensory needs in a way that will quiet them and won’t trigger hypersensitivities.
One of the most common sensory seeker tips is investing in a weighted blanket. Many sensory seekers find the pressure a weighted blanket puts on their body helps them fall asleep faster.
Some sensory seekers are overly sensitive to textures and find them overstimulating, so a soft texture for bedding is usually best. Choose a soft flannelette and remove any scratchy parts, such as tags and labels. They may also sleep better if they wear long, soft pajamas that help avoid skin rubbing on the blankets.
Paint their bedroom a color that they find soothing, and use simple patterns or colors on their bedding to limit distractions.
Another idea is to build a bed cocoon or cave by using long pillows or soft toys to create a comforting, soft space. If feasible, using a mosquito net or bed curtains to enclose the space further can help the space feel even safer. Tuck the sheets under the mattress on one side or both to help create gentle pressure.
Use soft lighting to make their bedroom more sleep-enhancing. Many people have found slowing their breathing to prepare for sleep by using a product like Dodow useful, and this could be a way to help adolescents who need more control over their sleep hygiene.
Building An Effective Bedtime Routine
Building an effective bedtime routine will help your sensory seeker fall asleep faster – creating an association of the routine with sleep. Many parents of sensory seekers have found that starting the winding-down routine about an hour before bedtime gives their sensory seeker plenty of time to transition into a sleep-ready state.
Things like bathtime and tooth-brushing will form part of the bedtime routine, and the warmth of the bath will also help prepare their body for sleep. An Epsom salts bath may be effective for helping their body relax. For younger children, a storytime in low light will help their minds to settle, and the low light will help signal that it’s now time to sleep.
If suitable for your child, gentle massage in their bedtime routine will also help relax their joints and muscles and signal that it’s now the end of the day and time for them to sleep. Older teens could make a gentle short yoga session part of their routine. Make sure it’s a gentle stretch with the poses held without pushing. By using the same session each time, this routine will help them train their mind and bodies for sleep.
Guided relaxation CDs for kids could help younger sensory seekers get to sleep, while older kids and teens may prefer to use classical music in their bedrooms at night. Another option is to use a fan or white-noise generator.
Sleep Hygiene For Sensory Seekers
Different things will work better for different children, but the key is to build a repetitive, calming routine that signals to the child that it is now time to wind down and get ready for sleep. However, certain things will make it harder for your sensory seeker to fall asleep, so here are things to avoid before bedtime or in their bedroom:
- Bright lights inhibit melatonin production, so use low lighting at night and in their bedrooms. Keep sleep spaces dimly lit and quiet.
- If your child has a high sensitivity to texture, avoid synthetic materials for bedding and pajamas; use soft, 100% cotton.
- Loud noises can keep a child awake, so avoid playing loud music or tv shows at night and close their bedroom door to help reduce the noise from the rest of the house. Some children respond well to white noise, such as a fan.
- Keep stimulating activities for the morning – use nighttime for relaxing activities such as puzzles, reading, or drawing.
- Don’t eat late at night or have big meals.
- Avoid screen time at night, and don’t allow the use of video games, computers, smartphones, or tablets at night. The light from screens can trigger wakefulness.
- Don’t let the room to be too hot or too cold. Find the optimum temperature your child prefers and helps them sleep, and keep the temperature regulated.
Ideas For Creating An Easier Bedtime For Sensory Seekers
Several other factors can help improve bedtime for sensory seekers. Avoiding over-stimulating activities towards the end of the day will also help. If possible, schedule more vigorous play at the start of the day and quieter activities for later.
Younger children may find it easier to fall asleep if they have something to suck or chew at night. Look for ‘chew soothers’ if this seems like something that would help your child.
Make sure your children get enough physical stimulation to work off excess energy. Otherwise, they may feel the need to fidget and toss and turn through the night, making for very unrestful sleep! Set up a trampoline or rebounder for your children to jump on during the day.
Young children may find the repetitive motion of a swing or rocker soothing; however, avoid doing this if they wake up at night, as it may become part of their routine.
Diet may affect sensory seeker’s sleep – avoid larger meals, soda, or caffeine at night. Camomile or rooibos tea at night are good caffeine-free warm drinks that help sleep.
If your child responds well to scents, use relaxing essential oils such as lavender – a few drops on their pillow will be enough.
One of the top things you can do for a sensory seeker to help them sleep is to establish a calming bedtime routine that signals to them that the day has ended and it is now time to sleep. Good sleep hygiene, such as no bright lights, late-night TV, or smartphones/tablets, but instead using low lighting, soothing music, and quiet storytime, will help them switch to sleep time. Use sleep aids such as weighted blankets and chew soothers if they help your child settle.