By: Lindsey Murphy, OTR/L
With Daylight Savings Time quickly approaching, many of us are celebrating the extra hours of evening daylight while lamenting our loss of that extra hour of sleep. Falling asleep on Saturday evening may require some adjustments since it could be at a different hour than to which we were previously accustomed. While Daylight Savings may present short-term slumber problems for some, others experiencing chronic complications with sleep patterns may have a more long-term issue.
Challenges with bedtime routines, insomnia, frequent waking, and/or difficulty waking up in the morning are commonly experienced by many individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Sleep is very regulating for our bodies and is essential for a person’s ability to function at his or her peak performance throughout the day. When sleep is impacted for any reason, it can affect someone’s behavior, critical thinking skills, and emotional regulation. Because these factors are already impacted in individuals with SPD, finding a way to improve the quality and quantity of sleep is essential.
If starting the bedtime routine causes stress or meltdowns, incorporating a visual schedule may ease some of the anxiety associated with falling asleep. Creating a visual schedule with pictures of each of the steps of the bedtime routine and allowing the child to choose the order of completion will increase the child’s sense of control and often decrease the frequency and intensity of meltdowns. Providing specific transition cues with exact time limits allows the child to gradually ease into the routine (i.e. “Five more minutes until it’s time to get ready for bed”). Transitioning from a preferred to a semi-preferred activity could be a useful strategy to incorporate before starting the bedtime routine (i.e. limiting time finishing Lego structures to 20 minutes, then moving to a new area to put together a simple and quick puzzle, and finally transitioning to the bedtime routine). Finding a transition object that is only available at bedtime (i.e. an oil and water toy, scented stuffed animal, I-spy rice jar, etc.) can decrease anxiety associated with the many transitions required during a bedtime routine.
One way to improve sleep patterns and assist with those difficult transitions is to ensure that the sensory diet is completed with regularity each day. Encouraging tactile, heavy work, and vestibular experiences every two hours can improve regulation. When kids are gravitating towards playing video or computer games, decreasing screen time by replacing it with activities such as making Play-Doh creations, cooking a meal, jumping on a trampoline, rolling across a ball, doing animal crawls, playing charades, or other sensory-rich activities can significantly impact sleep patterns. Avoiding or limiting time in overstimulating environments is important as well.
While sensory input can be very positive, it is important to find the right approach for each unique sensory system. Because a human’s sense of smell is directly connected to the brain’s emotional center, finding pleasant, calming scents often decreases anxiety and improves sleep. Deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation are excellent ways to calm the body both physically and mentally. Warm foods or drinks are calming to the nervous system, whereas cold ones are alerting and should be avoided if possible immediately before bedtime. Sound soothers, weighted or heavy blankets, deep pressure massage, or gentle back and forth rocking motions are other suggestions to try.
There are many professionals available to assist with improving both quality and quantity of sleep. Collaborating with an occupational therapist to find an ideal sensory diet and customize sleep strategies can improve bedtime routines and sleep quality. Working with a doctor to ensure that low iron levels, food allergies, daily nutrition, sleep apnea, medication side effects, etc. are not affecting sleep patterns is recommended. By finding the cause of any sleep challenges and incorporating strategies to improve regulation, falling and staying asleep will be a dream come true.