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A sensory perspective on getting your baby to sleep

Toddler sleeping with bunny

Sleep is super important for your child, a time for their busy little brains to process their day, lay down neural pathways, make connections, store memories, and for their bodies to grow a little more. There are many theories on sleep, especially when it comes to babies. Please remember that most of these are in fact “theories” and not proven methods of helping your child to sleep.

Each baby and family is different. So what worked for your best friend may not be the right choice for you and your family. There is no ‘mould’ for your baby to fit into when it comes to sleep. Just as adults all have different sleep needs and habits, so do babies and older children.

Nubabi Occupational Therapists specialising in sensory integration, Carly Tzanos and Lourdes Bruwer, share three sleep research findings;

  1. Research on sleeping through the night is based on a baby sleeping for 5 hours, not 10 or 12. Keep this in mind when reading about babies sleeping through the night. If they go down at 6 pm then sleeping for five hours would mean that they wake again at 11 pm. Up until five years old (and sometimes longer), it is normal for a child to wake at least once during the night and need an adult’s help to fall back to sleep again.
  2. Limiting or cutting out a daytime sleep is not the solution to a better night of sleep. Research has shown that babies who sleep well during the day tend to sleep better at night.
  3. There is a link between excessive crying in babies, which leads to an increase in the release of stress hormones, to many other behavioural difficulties later on in their life, e.g. attachment difficulties, bed wetting etc.

While it is exhausting getting up night after night, it is also helpful to remember that there will be a time when your child will not want to cuddle in bed with you – so try to treasure these midnight cuddles! They also advise parents to read as much as they can about the different sleep theories as well as what the wide range of “normal” sleep behaviour is. Something else to consider is whether the reason for your baby waking could be a sensory one.

To ascertain whether a sensory reason is the culprit of your baby’s sleeplessness, you need to put on your sensory detective glasses. Carly and Lourdes explain each sensory system and how that sense can help or hinder sleep and then share some helpful tips to calm sensory overload in your baby or toddler.

The visual sense

Light can be alerting to your baby. You may have noticed how your baby stares at the ceiling light, unable to tear his eyes away from it, like a moth drawn to a flame! Carly says, “Some visual stimuli is calming, e.g. a blue lamp or a fire, whereas other visual stimuli are alerting, e.g. the screen of an iPad, Phone or TV.”

Helpful tips:

  • hang blackout curtains to make the room darker.
  • use blue bulbs in the bedside lamp.
  • add a dimmer to the light switch.
  • reposition lights so that they are not directly above the change mat or cot.
  • eliminate alerting pictures and murals from the walls.
  • consider calming colours for the sleep space walls, e.g. blue instead of contrasting reds, whites and blacks.

The smell sense

Babies and children and even some adults have a very sensitive sense of smell. Lourdes points out that, “smells that are normal and common for us as adults can be overwhelming for our babies because their sense of smell is better than ours.”

Helpful tips:

  • change your laundry detergent and softener to a milder one.
  • change where you apply your perfume or cologne (e.g. not to the chest area or neck where your baby often nuzzles into) or stop using these intense smells for a time.
  • opt for a gentler smelling soap both for baby and parents/caregivers.
  • use an odourless cream/lotion or baby oil for baby’s massages.
  • incorporate familiar smells into the sleep space, e.g. a cloth or blanket which smells like mom or mom’s breastmilk or one of dad’s t-shirts.
  • be cognizant of which detergents you are using to clean and sterilise your baby’s room or cot with and how they smell.
  • consider cleaning a long time before or directly after a nap and ventilate the room sufficiently before attempting sleep.
  • ensure sufficient ventilation and fresh air from windows throughout the day.

The temperature sense

A baby’s touch sense gives them information about their temperature. Babies rely heavily on their parents or caregivers to help them regulate their own body temperature. This is not always easy as adults, babies and children all have varying thresholds for temperature.

Helpful tips:

  • query whether your baby is under or overdressed (feel their skin at the back their neck to gauge).
  • use a gauge to monitor the sleep space’s temperature if you are unsure.
  • think about whether using an air conditioner, fan or heater for temperature regulation would be helpful.
  • change the blankets to see what your baby prefers. Some babies prefer heavy blankets; others prefer light blankets, some like soft fluffy textures, others prefer plain, smooth textures etc.
  • try swaddling or using a sleep sack. Not all babies like these sleep aids, but for some, it’s the answer to better sleep.

The movement sense

The movement sense is a calming and regulating sense. Babies have very immature sensory systems and thus need more assistance from caregivers to assist them with sensory soothing. Some movement is calming whereas other types of movement is alerting.

Helpful tips:

  • build in alerting, stop-start movement, in varying directions with your baby’s head in different planes during the course of the day. You can do this by incorporating fun, rough and tumble play on the bed in the late afternoon.
  • have a movement routine which includes calming, linear and rhythmical movement ahead of sleep. Remember to keep your baby’s head in one plane only during this kind of calming movement.
  • get a calming swing or hammock for your baby and use this with linear, rhythmical, continuous swinging actions ahead of sleep.
  • meet your baby’s movement needs during the day, especially if you have a busy body so that he doesn’t need to catch up on movement when it’s actually sleep time.

The hearing sense

This is a sense easily recognised for interrupting sleep. Really tiny babies do need quiet to get a good quality sleep. Even though some babies seem to be able to sleep in a loud or busy environment, often the quality of such sleep is questionable.

Helpful tips:

  • read to your baby or toddler before sleep time, the sound of your voice can help him become drowsy and ready for sleep
  • sing lullabies
  • have soothing background music playing.
  • try using white noise in (white noise CDs or noise from fans, heaters, hair dryers or tumble dryers) to help block out background noises, which may rouse your baby prematurely from his sleep.
  • consider the noise that the bedding or sleep toys are making. Some bedding and toys make louder rustling noises when your baby adjusts his position in the bed.

Mother Cuddling Daughter

The deep pressure sense

“The deep pressure sense like the movement sense is a very calming sense”, says Lourdes. Any active, resisted push/pull action or hugging sensation is calming on the sensory system. This is why a baby enjoys being rocked, held, massaged or hugged.

Helpful tips:

  • patting your baby to sleep: use a firm, consistent pat and not a light touch pat, which can be more alerting or irritating than calming.
  • consider swaddling your baby before sleep time. Do not wait till your baby is already distressed before introducing this technique, introduce the swaddle while your baby is calm and alert so that when it’s used for sleep time, your baby is familiar with the sensation of being swaddled.
  • use a heavy or weighted blanket. The weight of the blanket provides consistent pressure over a long time improving the quality of sleep.
  • give your baby squishes and squashes through the arms, legs and joints, especially ahead of sleep time.
  • nest your baby on a nesting cushion. He will enjoy the sense of security he will get from feeling where his body starts and ends.
  • the mouth can also provide sensory soothing oral deep pressure. This is why babies love sucking their fingers, dummies or breastfeeding to self-sooth. Helping your little one use his mouth to self-sooth will aid sleep for sure.
  • bath time provides a wonderful opportunity for soothing deep pressure as the water pushes against the skin and body. A soothing bath before sleep will help him get into a “just-right” state for sleep.
  • massage is a great way of providing your baby’s developing sensory system with the soothing and calming it needs.

The touch sense

The touch sense for some babies is still developing and can be over sensitive. Everyday touch input from mom’s hands or the bedding or clothes can easily overwhelm or even upset a little one. Some types of touch are alerting, e.g. light tickle touch, while other types of touch are calming, e.g. deep, firm touch. It is important to provide the right kind of touch to your baby ahead of sleep. Light, ticklish touch should be avoided, and caregivers should intentionally try to use a firmer, more containing type of touch ahead of sleep time.

Helpful tips:

  • change the fabric of your babies pyjamas to see what he prefers;
  • use different textured blankets to see what is easier for your baby to tolerate;
  • use firm patting, holding or nesting touch input at sleep time.

The Interoception sense

Senses from the internal organs such as the bladder or the bowel can cause a sensitive baby to wake. Little gas bubbles in the intestines or a distended bladder can be enough to wake a little one because they are still learning how to filter out background sensory information.

Helpful tips:

  • check with your paediatrician if your baby is suffering from colic or reflux.
  • position your baby differently to assist reflux, e.g. with his head higher than his feet.
  • ensure your baby has a well fitted and dry nappy before his nap.
  • ensure your baby or child has had enough water or milk ahead of his nap so that he doesn’t wake up thirsty.
  • consider whether his transition to solids may be causing some sleep disruption while his tummy gets used to digesting new foods.
  • check the gums for swollen or cut gums, which may indicate teething.

With all the senses checked, parents are often still sleep deprived but try to remember that this is not forever.

  • be consistent for a time when trying a sleep solution before trying something new.
  • get other caregivers involved, especially on weekends.
  • agree on what is okay for YOUR family and stick to it.
  • listen to your feelings and instincts.
  • establish a routine (e.g. supper, bath, story, song, cuddle, feed/bottle, goodnight).
  • help older babies or toddlers to process their day. Sometimes their brains are still trying to make sense of their day, so by asking them questions about what they did, who they saw, what they enjoyed etc. they can sort it out and then settle a little easier into sleep.

As parents, it is important for us to gift our babies or toddlers with the ability to return to sleep easily. “Our presence helps to calm our baby when their sensory systems are still immature and not yet capable of self-regulating. This impacts our baby’s emotional state and development”, says Lourdes. By calming your baby when he is little he will learn to calm himself when he is older.

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