I’m a sensory avoider. As a child, I needed an hour of quiet time before bed to wind down. I would struggle to sleep if the room wasn’t straightened out, and the sheets weren’t tucked into the mattress tightly. I was particular about the fabric and fit of my pyjamas. In contrast, my brother was a sensory seeker. He slept best after a long game of hockey, listening to loud music, or rough and tumble play. His room was full of bright purple lights, glow-in-the-dark decals on the ceiling, and Lego scattered around. He would struggle to sleep if he spent too much time indoors or sitting.
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We had our own unique sensory preferences and needs that influenced sleep. This is true for all kids!
Sensory Seekers: The Understimulated Child
Sensory seekers are individuals who actively seek out sensory experiences and enjoy intense or stimulating sensations. They have a strong need for sensory input and may engage in activities that provide different sensations to fulfill this need. Sensory seekers may enjoy things like jumping, spinning, or swinging to feel a sense of movement, or they may seek out textures, tastes, smells, sounds, or visual stimuli that are more intense or exciting. These experiences help sensory seekers feel engaged, focused, and satisfied. They often enjoy hands-on activities and may use fidget toys or objects with interesting textures to explore and interact with.
Sensory seekers might struggle with sleep when:
- They haven’t had enough movement throughout the day
- They don’t have enough visual stimulation before bed
- Their sleep space is too empty
- They don’t have something to fidget or chew on
Sensory Avoiders: The Overstimulated Child
Sensory avoiders are individuals who have a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli in their environment. This means that certain sounds, smells, tastes, textures, or visual stimuli can feel overwhelming or uncomfortable for them. They may try to avoid or limit exposure to these sensory experiences because they can be distracting, unpleasant, or even cause anxiety or distress. Sensory avoiders often prefer calm and quiet environments and may have specific preferences when it comes to clothing, food, or other sensory aspects of their daily life.
Sensory avoiders might struggle with sleep when:
- They’ve had a busy day
- They haven’t had enough time to wind down before
- They can feel the tag on their pyjamas
- Their sleep space is cluttered
How to Help a Sensory Seeker Sleep Better
“I want to jump, rough-house, and play.”
Annie is a sensory seeker. This means her body seeks out big experiences that activate her sense of touch, smell, sight, taste, and movement! Annie enjoys strong smells, crunchy foods with lots of flavour, fuzzy blankets, flashing lights, and bright colours. Sensory seekers like Annie often need a lot of big movement throughout the day to help her regulate and wind down in the evenings.
Children like Annie often struggle to listen and stay focused at bedtime if they haven’t had enough movement throughout the day. They might become restless, act silly, and have a difficult time winding their body down and transitioning into a restful state. They might also be more likely to want to wrestle or roughhouse before bed. Sensory seekers may also struggle to control their bodies and impulses, especially when they’re tired.
Common bedtime behaviours of sensory-seeking toddlers and preschoolers:
- Difficulty listening or following instructions.
- Trouble staying on task.
- Appearing restless, fidgety, or silly.
- Having difficulty staying in their bed.
- Slamming the door, tossing books off the shelf.
- Refusal to stay in bed.
Sensory-seeking kids will struggle most at bedtime when:
- They’ve spent most of their day sitting.
- They are roughhousing or playing a physical game that doesn’t have a clear start and finish before bed.
- They are being rushed through bedtime or told what to do.
Consider these ideas for a sensory seeker:
- Touch: Rock them in a chair while reading a bedtime story.
- Smell: Massage with an aromatic lotion before bed.
- Taste: Offer a crunchy or chewy snack before bed.
- Sound: Put on a sound that has a clear rhythm. Like waves or raindrops.
- Movement: Before the bedtime routine, roll them up like a burrito, and then press down on them with pillows!
Adding some of these ideas to a bedtime routine can help kids like Annie activate their senses and meet their need for movement, ensuring they’re ready to rest when it’s time to go to bed.
How to Help a Sensory Avoider Sleep Better
“It’s too bright, too loud, and too overwhelming.”
Johnny is a sensory avoider. This means when his environment is overwhelming – he’s had a really busy day, he has had too much touch, physical activity, noises, or lights going on – he might really struggle at bedtime. As a sensory avoider, Jonny may process sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes differently than his siblings. Things like strong smells, crowded places, or a really busy day can lead Jonny to feel overstimulated.
Children like Jonny often struggle at bedtime when they’ve been overstimulated all day and are also tired. Combining these two things can make it hard to control their body and impulses.
Common bedtime behaviours of sensory-avoiding toddlers and preschoolers:
- Covering ears
- Big meltdowns
- Throwing toys
- Hitting or kicking
- Over-the-top silliness
Sensory-avoiding children will often struggle at bedtime when:
- They have had a busy day at school
- The bedtime routine starts late or is rushed
- Other siblings are being loud or silly
- They have a wet pull-up
- The tags on their PJs are bothering them
- The room is too dark or bright
- Their bedroom is cluttered with toys
- They have too many stuffed animals in their bed
Consider these ideas for a sensory avoider:
- Implement quiet time before bed (e.g. reading, playing with cars, puzzles)
- Remove the tags from their PJs
- Straighten or remove clutter from the bedroom
- Start the bedtime routine 15 minutes earlier
- Print a visual bedtime routine
- Dim the lights during the bedtime routine
Making simple changes like this to the sleep space can help kids like Jonny feel calmer and less overstimulated at bedtime!
Getting Curious About Your Child’s Sensory Needs
If you suspect that your child’s sleep struggles are sensory-related, but aren’t quite sure about what they need, consider including them in the process of setting up their sleep space!
Here are some ways caregivers can get curious about their child’s sensory needs to curate their sleep space and bedtime routine:
- Invite your child to choose a toothbrush and the flavour of toothpaste.
- Ask your child if they’d like darkness or a night light.
- Invite them to choose between different types of white noise.
- Consult with your little one to see if they’d prefer their bed in the corner of the room.
- Include your child in the process of selecting pyjamas and bed linens.
- Ask your child questions about their day to get an idea of how much sensory input they’ve received, such as, “Did you get enough wiggles in today at recess?”
Inviting your child into the process and asking them what they need can help you make sense of their behaviour, and proactively meet their needs to prevent pushback, protesting, stalling and tears at bedtime.
Remember that every child is unique; what works for one child may not work for another. It may require some trial and error to find the strategies that work best for your child. Be patient, consistent, and open to adapting your approach as needed.
If you’re curious about your child’s sensory needs and want to make more changes to their sleep space or routine to promote better sleep, check out our bonus lesson on sensory needs in our Solving Bedtime Battles course!
- Each child has a different sensory need when it comes to sleep.
- Children who are sensory-seeking benefit from movement and stimulation throughout the day and before bedtime.
- Children who are sensory avoiders may need a quiet and calming bedtime routine to feel settled for sleep and can sometimes struggle when they’ve had a busy day.
- Involving your child in creating their sleep space and bedtime routine can help meet their sensory needs.
- Patience, consistency, and adaptability are key when finding strategies that work for your child’s sleep.