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HELP: My Child With Sensory Issues Has Trouble Sleeping Alone

June 21, 2021


My six-year-old son won’t sleep in his own bed, so we have been letting him sleep with us. How can we work on moving him back to his own room? He has sensory issues and always wants to be near me.
—Jenny

My Child With Sensory Issues Has Trouble Sleeping Alone

Dear Jenny,

This issue of children with sensory issues not being able to sleep on their own is a common one among children who have sensory differences. Sleeping is one of the physical tasks of self-regulation and when any one or combination of a child’s sensory systems is not working efficiently or effectively, then sleep is likely to be disrupted.

One of the most common ways that sensory differences impact sleep is from what we call tactile/touch processing differences. Some children need more touch input so they can feel where they are in space (their own body awareness is poor) and other children have touch sensitivities (their sense of touch is over-responding). In both cases, having a parent close to them offers the warm, firm, pressure that helps to calm touch sensitivities OR it gives them the added feedback about their own position so they can rest and relax into sleep.

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The other factor that can contribute to these challenges from a sensory standpoint is that many children with sensory differences have a dys-regulated nervous system. Parents are typically the “safest” relationship that a child has, and this sense of safety supports a more regulated nervous system, which helps the child rest and fall asleep.

Touch plays a large role in self-regulation from birth onward and touch from a parent, even passively received while sleeping, can support a child remaining in an even state of arousal that allows for sleep.

Some sensory strategies to support a child sleeping in their own bed include:

  • Touch inputs such as warm towels (warmed from a dryer before sleep time), a body pillow, positioning stuffed animals around them, or use of compression sheets, or certain fabrics they like around them (fleece, flannel, fuzzy soft pillows, etc.).
  • Visual inputs such as ambient lighting (white Christmas lights, a soothing projector on the wall, nightlight(s), or glow in the dark star stickers.
  • Auditory inputs such as a white noise machine, soft quiet music, or use of the iLs Dreampad pillow that plays calming music while a child falls asleep (integratedlistening.com)
  • Cozy spaces are sometimes helpful for children with sensory differences because it helps them feel more secure. It can limit visual input, help them feel more secure in their body, and create a warmer space while they sleep. Some parents I have worked with purchase a bed-tent, a canopy, or create a tent on bunkbeds by hanging a blanket down the side from the top bunk. I had one child sleep with a giant cardboard box at the head of the bed to place the pillow in to feel more secure.
  • Avoid use of screens within at least an hour before bedtime. Many children with sensory differences are hyper-responsive to visual input and thus may be more hypersensitive to the impact of screens. A child may look calm and relaxed while watching a screen or while scrolling through youtube but the brain is far from quiet. Studies show that some children are more impacted by active screen-use than others and that scrolling has a stronger impact than simply watching a TV show. Being selective about the type of screen-time and the timing of it may play a large role in supporting better sleep.

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Working with an occupational therapist (OT) to address any sensory challenges that may be complicating your child’s ability to self-calm is highly recommended.

An OT may recommend specific strategies in addition to the above that could be helpful, but he/she may also look more comprehensively at how to calm your child’s nervous systems overall, and not just at sleep time. OT’s will also make suggestions for environmental, activity and routine modifications to support better self-calming and independence around bedtime. https://www.asensorylife.com/sleep-challenges.html

Finally, sometimes tackling sleep difficulties may need a combined approach of sensory support and counseling because there can be social-emotional difficulties contributing to sleep troubles or parents may need support in managing the push-back that comes with bedtime for some children.  There are private sleep consultants https://www.sleepsolutionsbychristine.com who may also be beneficial.

If sleep and falling asleep becomes an ongoing challenge it is worth discussing with your child’s pediatrician to make sure all physical causes of sleep difficulty are ruled out and then some of the above solutions may be helpful.

This article was featured in Issue 95 – Managing Autism Together

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