Dr. Kathryn Wise
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8 Ways The Sensory System Affects Your Child's Sleep - Guest Post with Dr. Kathryn Wise, OTD

Sleep is a wonderful thing….when you can get it.  As new parents and more experienced parents, our job is to make sure we create the most welcoming environment for our child’s 8 senses. We actually have 8 senses!  Do not worry if you can only name 5.  In this blog I’ll cover the 8 ways the sensory system affects your child’s sleep.

In school, we are taught the basic senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and vision.  As an Occupational Therapist, I also look at proprioception (deep pressure sense), vestibular (movement sense), and interoception (senses from our internal organs such as hunger pains, gas, or a headache).

When everyone sleeps – life is good.  When our little ones decide that 3 am is the best time to test out their vocal chords – then the entire house pays the next day!

So, When sleep is disrupted, it can make for different challenges such as poor feeding or difficulty in comforting because our babies are so over-stimulated to realize they are tired.

Our role as caregivers is to play a bit of a detective to determine the best environment for our children to calm and to eventually fall asleep.

There are many different reasons why children may have trouble settling or waking frequently through the night.  You can read more from Dr. Sarah’s blog 3 Reasons Your Baby Won’t Sleep Through the Night.

When considering sleep, we also want to consider sensory input and how that impacts our nervous system.  Our job is to take a step back and figure out what could be contributing to some of the poor sleeping patterns.

Let’s run through the 8 senses and how the sensory system affect your child sleep.

Sense 1 – Sense of Vision

Although we feel that light can be calming as the baby may be able to see where they are, it also can be alerting and can cause some distraction in the environment.  Blue light can be calming, but other lights such as a flashing clock or tv screen can be alerting.  Your role is to observe the environment and see what could be distracting even when the child’s eyes are closed.

  • Is the nightlight too bright and in direct line with the baby lying down?
  • Does the light flash?
  • Consider using a dimmer
  • Try black curtains and tape them down so that there are no distractions
  • The contrast of dark and bright can be troubling for some of us!

Sense 2:  Hearing

Some sounds can be calming while others the sounds can be distracting.

  • Sing to your child
  • Play soothing music with a consistent pace in the music, i.e. no change in rhythm of the song
  • Take out the stuffed animals that make sounds! Nothing like hearing Elmo laugh at 1 am to scare everyone in the house!
  • Consider white noise!

Sense 3 and 4:  Touch and Taste

One of the main contributors to the quality of sleep is touch.  This can include the feeling of clothing on skin and temperature.  At young ages, children rely on the caregivers to regulate their temperature.  They do not have the ability to sense when they are hot or cold.

  • Have a thermometer for the baby/child’s room
  • Consider if the room requires a fan to help with airflow
  • If you have a vent or a fan, look at the airflow – is it blowing on your child’s face?
  • Offer different textures of blankets – does your child prefer light versus a heavy blanket?
  • Consider a sleep sack
  • For older children – are their teeth brushed and mouth rinsed?

You can more about How to Dress Your Baby For Winter Sleep here.

Clothing

  • Consider wearing long one long pieces versus 2 piece pajama and observe what works best for your child
  • This can be a big one! I remember when my daughter was about 6 months old I could not figure out why she was screaming for 2 hours straight when I put her down to bed for the night.  Finally, I looked down at her toes and they were curled in her footies.  She hit a growth spurt and did not fit the pajamas!
  • Some children like the feeling of soft material where others prefer light cotton.
  • Lint balls that gather on pajama could distract an older child.
  • Many babies enjoy the tight feeling of zippers where others prefer buttons. It can be disorganizing for some babies to have the feeling of comfort throughout their body with a pair of tight PJs and then have an open toe.
  • Some babies/kids prefer that feeling throughout their body.
  • Some children need tight pajamas others prefer loose fitting.
  • Play around with it.
  • You may find that sometimes the sleep pattern is disrupted when you go from one solid PJ to two pieces.
  • This is something to keep in mind for naps.  A baby or toddler may feel too uncomfortable in a pair of jeans versus wearing a soft cotton pair of pants.

Sense 5:  Smell

We often forget how the sense of smell does not allow us to calm down!  Could you imagine trying to fall asleep next to a toilet?  Why do we put diaper genies in a baby’s room?

  • Make sure the diaper bin is out of the bedroom!
  • Clean clothes in odorless soap
  • Use odorless shampoo/soap during bath and test out some of the “soothing” scents to make sure they are “soothing”
  • Put a blanket or shirt in the crib that may have the caregiver’s scent on it

Sense 6: Proprioception

A deep touch is calming for the nervous system where a light tap is considered alerting.

  • Provide a sustained and strong cuddle when holding the child and trying to get them to sleep
  • Massage the baby before sleep to try and calm them down
  • Sucking is a form of deep pressure
  • Provide opportunities for a pacifier to try and have the child sleep
  • If you “pat” a baby’s bottom to sleep, try to do it in a rhythmic fashion

Sense 7: Vestibular

This is your sense that helps us regulate our movement as calm or alerting.  Be mindful of what kind of movement you do with your baby before putting them to bed.

  • Consider using a calming swing to help them fall asleep
  • Front to back or side to side is fine as long as it is in a linear motion (versus circular motion)
  • Keep your baby active during the day – take them for walks, let them crawl around, let them explore swings!

Sense 8: Interoception

This is our sense from our internal organs.  We do not talk about this sense enough and it is so important to consider when establishing a good bedtime routine.

  • Ensure diapers are dry before bed!
  • A child that is overly sensitive to touch may be upset by a wet diaper. Even though the child may be a few months old, some babies can be distracted by the wet sensation (and in some cases the heavy/expanded feeling of a wet diaper.)
  • Look for signs of a tight diaper or rash – your baby may not be able to tell you!
  • Ensure your baby is well fed!
  • Is your child eating enough or too much? This can be discussed with your pediatrician but you want to look at if there were recent changes in your child’s diet.  Has the introduction of textures or new foods created reflux or some digestive challenges?
  • Consult with a physician if you are questioning colic or reflux
  • Look for signs of constipation!
  • A child that is constipated may have difficulty in regulating their ability to calm and sleep.

Our job as parents is to be detectives and try to solve some of the challenges with a baby not sleeping. Along with some of the great strategies from Dr. Sarah Mitchell, I hope that these suggestions will help you all build solid sleep routines. Now you better understand how the sensory system affect your child sleep

Dr. Kathryn Wise, OTD, MHSc. BHSc(OT), BA, OT Reg. (Ont.)

Dr. Wise is an Occupational Therapist by background and mom to two amazing little girls.  Along with her Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, she has a Masters degree in Health Administration. For over 15 years, she has had the pleasure of working with families on a variety of feeding related issues.  She can be found at www.wiselittlefeeders.com or on instagram @wiselittlefeeders.

Want to learn more about how to help your baby sleep?  Join my online class and community:

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So, now you have better understanding on how sensory system affect the sleep of  baby and how you can manage to help your baby sleep better by following the points mentioned.

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