Most people know on some level that sleep is important for health, and we’ve all at some point or another experienced the grogginess and poor mental performance which goes along with skipping a few hours; yet most of us underestimate just how important sleep can be. Getting enough sleep affords better concentration, tissue regeneration, healing, memory consolidation and learning. In fact, sleep deprivation of only an hour or so per night can start to negatively affect appetite regulation, so is associated with obesity and diabetes. Unfortunately, for many children with sensory processing disorder and their families, getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult. A child with persistent sleeping difficulties may show decreased attention and cognitive skills and heightened arousal levels in an attempt to counteract their sleepiness.
In children with sensory processing disorder, the brain improperly processes information sent by the nerves, resulting in them experiencing the world in an amplified or ‘muffled’ manner (or both) which can lead to difficulties sleeping for a number of reasons. These individuals may be unable to filter out sounds, find that their bed sheets feel too scratchy, too soft or too heavy or their mattress could feel uncomfortable. Additionally, they may be unable to lower their own arousal levels to be in a calm state ready for sleep because they may have difficulty self-regulating, or they may be experiencing emotions such as fear and anxiety as they may be unsure of what is going to happen next, how long they will be in their room or where or when they will see their care giver.
For children with sensory processing issues there are a few interventions that could be used to improve the quality of the child’s sleep (And that of their care givers!). The first could be to implement a routine of providing various sensory stimuli such as deep pressure and push/pull activities throughout the child’s day, therefore ensuring that they have received sufficient sensory input and are regulated and ready for sleep. Secondly, creating a bed time routine may help the child prepare for bedtime and increase predictability of events, which may also reduce the child’s anxieties around bedtime. Finally, creating an environment which promotes sleep is important, which may include ensuring that the room is cool, its dark (a child may prefer to have a night light rather than a completely dark room), sheets are clean and comfortable and the room itself is only set up for sleeping (Toys are put away and kept away from the bed or ideally in another room, televisions are kept to other areas of the home) to reduce associations between the bedroom and activities that the child can do in there when they are awake.
Sensory processing disorder can disrupt sleep and then sleep deprivation can exacerbate some of the day-to-day difficulties that these children can face – leading to a vicious circle with obvious impacts on home life. Fortunately, however, tackling this issue can in fact have profound impacts on the lives of the individual and those around them. By implementing effective treatment plans and making adjustments to small aspects of the child’s sleeping arrangements, it’s a lot easier for everyone in the home to enjoy stress-free bedtimes and a good night’s sleep.
Written by Emma Davies, Future Steps Occupational Therapist