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Why Sensory Integration Is Important for Your Neurodivergent Child’s Sleep

Updated: Jan 30

Sensory integration allows us to participate in everyday activities. Acting out our environment with all of our senses makes the world more real for us so we can operate more successfully in that world. By integrating all of the information we get from our senses, we are able to make sense of the world around us and move through and interact successfully in this world.

The senses are the pathways of information from the outside world into our brains. In order to navigate through the world, we need to gather together all the information we receive from our EIGHT senses and put it together in a way that makes sense.

If we don't use all of our Eight senses then our understanding of the world around us can limit us or even stop us from moving through and interacting with the world around us, which often leads to frustration or stress. This is why sensory integration is incredibly important for those who struggle with insomnia, panic attacks, and other sleep disorders.

And among these people who suffer from insomnia and sleep disorders, most of the time are neurodivergent individuals. Individuals with neurodivergence are more likely to feel overloaded by high sensory input. People with autism or those on the autism spectrum might experience an overload when exposed to too many input stimuli.

If you ever wondered why sensory integration is significant for sleep, then read on to find out how it works.

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What is Sensory Integration?

A mom playing wooden toys with her young son

Sensory integration is a term used to describe processes in the brain that allow us to take the information we receive from our 8 senses, organize it, and respond appropriately.

Here are our 8 Sensory Systems:

Tactile System

The tactile system refers to our sense of touch. Our bodies have many receptors all over the skin for different sensations, often perceived by touching. The tactile system allows us to detect physical sensations like pressure, texture, and temperature.

  1. Visual input (sight): Our eyes are the most important asset when it comes down to our sight. As we take in light rays, which create tiny pictures on the membrane of our eyes and send signals to our brain. These signals tell us what we are seeing.

  2. Gustatory input (taste): We sense food and drinks through taste cells, which inform us about the flavor, textural feel, and temperature of what we're eating and drinking. These taste cells are clustered in the mouth (throat), tongue, and palate. There are five different specific tastes that can be detected - salty, sweet, sour/acidic; bitter; umami (savory).

  3. Tactile input (touch): Our tactile system helps us to distinguish different sensations of pressure, texture, hot and cold, and pain. This includes telling the difference between a light touch and firm touch, and textures from dry to wet.

  4. Hearing input (auditory): We can get auditory input by way of our ears. They tell us if the sound is significant, how close it is (or was), and if we've heard it before.

  5. Olfactory input (smell): Our nose picks up information from the odors around us and, with help from an array of nerves, transmits it to our brain. Recent scientific research has shown that humans' sense of smell can be underestimated. It is closely linked to emotion and memory, therefore it can trigger unexpected trauma reactions.

Vestibular System

It is important to note that the vestibular system refers to the inner ear, which has two components: the labyrinth and semicircular canals. The right ear is connected to the right half of the vestibular system, while the left ear is connected to the left half. The cochlea in each inner ear helps with hearing and balance. There are four stages in a process that occurs when you move: eyes move, head move, muscles move, and neurons respond. It takes time for these signals to travel from one side of your body to another (from your brain), so you will not be able to react to your surroundings as quickly as if you did not have this delay. The vestibular system makes sense of the signals, giving you information about whether your body is moving, how it is moving, and in what direction.

Proprioceptive System

The proprioceptive system refers to skeletal muscles and joints, while the tactile system includes receptors in the skin. The first level of sensory integration occurs during fetal development when sensory receptors are able to detect movement within an organism's environment during fetal development. This allows a fetus to move toward or away from perceived threats in order to avoid injury.

Interoceptive input (internal):

The interoceptive system enables us to feel what's happening inside our body. We call it our “hidden sense”. This can influence how we feel and our sense of well-being. It can also determine changes in our internal state like hunger or fullness, thirst, body temperature, heart rates, breathing rates, social touch, muscle tension, itchiness, nausea, sleepiness, and more.

How does Sensory Integration work?

The goal of sensory integration is to provide a variety of sensory inputs to stimulate the nervous system and promote development. Sensory integration therapy can be used for people who have been diagnosed with autism, anxiety, ADHD, and other disorders.

Here’s a snippet of a video from explaining how sensory integration works:

Source: YouTube Video “Importance of Sensory Integration”

In order to understand why sensory integration is so important for sleep let's first look at what happens without it.

If you were born without one of your ‘eight”’ senses you'd probably have trouble with many everyday tasks such as reading or cooking because you wouldn't be able to complete the task nor function well. Without the senses, it's difficult to feel or know when you're touching something, or when there is pain versus pleasure. So, say if you are not able to feel pain, it will either prevent you from falling asleep or you will find difficulty staying asleep. Pain-related insomnia can get worse over time.

Consequently, such experience can lead to anxiety in children and adults because the brain won't be able to tell which situation is dangerous and which isn't. The whole family will be affected.

If someone has trouble with sensory integration such as vestibular disorder, they will find themselves feeling dizzy and feeling off-balance. Vertigo or tinnitus for example is some of the more common issues in our vestibular senses. Tinnitus can lead to insomnia because it affects the sleeper's ability to sleep. Loud tinnitus roughly tripled the risk in a survey of more than 14,000 Japanese ages 45 – 79 but it can be difficult for people with any level of tinnitus.

A swing, which is where a child or adult swings at the end of a bar, is the quickest and most effective way to calm your nervous system. Almost everyone has done it at some point in their life but for some children with a sensory processing disorder, swinging on a swing can produce benefits that last hours. Swing for at least 15 minutes to see lasting results.

Moreover, when children have trouble understanding and responding to the world around them, they may experience intense sensations known as dysregulation. A child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) may have difficulty self-soothing themselves. This can cause them to have trouble calming down, which is important for getting to sleep.

Why is Sensory Integration important for sleep?

Sometimes when kids are overly tired, they don’t calm down enough to sleep. Sometimes, overstimulation at school makes our children tired and they want to sleep after class which interrupts their sleep during the evening.

Kids often feel tired or exhausted despite not doing anything all day long.

The inability of the sensory integration process to function well can cause a child to be unable to distinguish when it is overstimulated or understimulated.

So, when your child acts up during bedtime, don’t be quick to ignore their requests or complaints nor treat them as “behavioral” or a means to “escape bedtime”.

Here are some signs of problems in sensory integration that might affect your child’s sleep:

  • If your child is overly sensitive to tactile input such as when they don’t like to wear pajamas (or any other certain clothes)

  • Try to ask If your child prefers to sleep naked or would want to be under compression shirts to bed or even oversized t-shirts

  • The same is true if they don’t like the feeling of your bedsheets, that’s another tactile sensitivity

  • Try to ask If your child prefers a weighted blanket (recommended is (7-10% of the child’s body weight)

  • If your child gets upset when taking a bath or shower before bedtime, this can also indicate an over-responsive tactile input

  • Ask your child to take a bath in the morning instead or maybe before dinner, switching from a shower to a bath

  • If your child is seeking proprioceptive input they may be clingy or would want someone to be next to them when they sleep

  • Move their bed to a corner so they can feel the walls or buy a body pillow

  • Another indication of under-responsive to seeking proprioceptive input is when they want stuffed toys or pillows piled on top of their bed

  • Ask them if they could try sleeping under or on top of a bean bag

  • Use weighted blankets

  • Your child may be looking for or may have under-responsive vestibular or could also be proprioceptive input or in need of tactile stimulation if they keep changing positions throughout the night

  • Try the tips mentioned above and see which one is your child’s preference

  • If they keep on falling out of the bed, they may be seeking or can also be under-responsive to vestibular input (vestibular is body positioning)

  • Try the tips mentioned above and see which one is your child’s preference

  • If your child seeks complete silence when falling asleep, he or she may be over-responsive to auditory input

  • How about trying to use a sound machine or white noise machine

  • Some prefer noise-canceling headphones

  • Do they dislike the taste of their toothpaste? He or she may be overly sensitive to oral (taste/smell) input

  • Try having them brush their teeth without toothpaste or use an electric toothbrush or use other toothpaste like the flavored options (do not use peppermint or cinnamon though)

  • Does your child also like snacking right before bedtime? This is another oral input-seeking behavior.

  • Try only giving them foods that are chewy or crunchy before bedtime and or at dinnertime

  • If your child still uses a bottle at bedtime, again he or she may be seeking oral input

  • Ask them to suck a piece of candy while you are reading them their bedtime stories just make sure to keep a cup of water for them to drink right after

  • Alternatively, ask them to brush their teeth using an electric toothbrush

  • If your child looks around their room when falling asleep, this may be an indication they are seeking visual input

  • Try placing a nightlight, hanging blue or green tube lights or using a moving fish tank toy

  • Does your child complain about their room being too bright (even when their lights are already turned off)? Again, this may be due to their over-responsive visual sensory input

  • Try using blackout curtains and/or using sleep masks

How much sleep does your child need?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, here are the recommended hours of sleep by age:

READ MORE: FAQs About Sleep for Neurodivergent Teens It is important to understand your child’s sleep needs.

First off: “How much sleep does my child need?” A normal night is around eight hours—but this varies depending on your child's age and whether they have any medical conditions that impact their sleep patterns (like allergies).

How does poor sleep worsen your child’s sensory integration issues?

Poor sleep can make life even more complicated for someone with Sensory Processing Disorder because they are potentially more sensitive to their surroundings.

Consider a child who for a long time sleeps poorly.

Her inability to stay alert may come out in unusual ways like constantly jumping around or making random hyperactive movements.

Your child could “zone out”.

Sometimes, to help him focus, he might start chewing on his sweatshirt or his nails.

She might be more hypersensitive toward peers.

They might have a low frustration tolerance and they might give up easily.

To get that stimulation their body needs, you may also find them spinning in circles.

They can think of and use a wide range of approaches to say "wake up body!".

And anything that might aggravate an already burning wood will lead to a no- to the hostile response.

Remember like neurotypical children, neurodivergent kids need a regular bedtime routine too.

Choosing to sleep early is a way to give your child the best start to their day.

Sleeping early is important for your child’s growth and development.

It helps them focus and maintain optimal behaviors, both in school and at home. The abovementioned issues are avoided if your child gets to have enough sleep.

Sleep is also a key component of cognitive development and attention, giving kids a better chance to perform academically.

Remember to try the strategies and tips I have shared here for 1-2 weeks. Making slow changes to their bedtime routines and habits is far better than getting them not to cooperate at all.

At first, there might be some form of resistance. Change is hard.

Try to get your child involved as much as possible in making decisions, such as picking the color of their compression sheets or deciding where their nightlight should be placed.

It's important to prioritize their sleep, even if that means making some sacrifices here and there.

How can you help your children with sensory integration issues if they have trouble sleeping?

For some children, sensory input can be difficult to process and involve a lot of concentration or frustration.

Children with sensory processing disorders experience a range of symptoms, from being over-responsive (crying at loud noises) to being under-responsive (not feeling pain).

Children who have difficulty sleeping are more likely to be anxious, irritable, and depressed than those who are able to get a good night's sleep.

However, your child may need help in learning how to manage under or over-stimulation of their sensory inputs, and doing so will help them make it through the night more comfortably, have a more restful sleep, and deal with common childhood problems that make sleep harder to achieve.

Below are some sleep strategies to help your child with sensory integration issues.

Sleep is the only time when our body can regenerate and heal. It is important to sleep at least 7-9 hours a day as mentioned above. But how do you get more sleep especially if you have sensory integration challenges? Here are some tips to help you get more sleep:

  1. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature.

  2. Lower that blue light exposure at least an hour before bedtime. Take away electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smartphones, from the bedroom. Read more about our article on light therapy.

  3. To sleep better it is advisable to avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol close to bedtime.

  4. Stimulate vestibular (movement) and proprioceptive (position) senses help them to feel more in control of their body

  5. Use weighted blankets and have firm massages that help increase melatonin levels naturally. This is a form of Deep Pressure Therapy.

  6. Try using a sensory compression sheet. These are elastic sheets that wrap around the bed in order to provide compression.

  7. Playing calming music or white noise around your child before bedtime can help them relax and fall asleep. Noise from other sources will be less distracting for them so they'll sleep better.

  8. Use black-out curtains if your child has visual input sensitivities


Related Topics:

  1. A Sleep Consultant's Top 5 Recommend Sleep Products for a Neurodivergent Child

  2. How Can I Help My Child with Sensory Issues to Sleep?


We hope these tips have been helpful! Remember that your child's sleep issues may not go away overnight, but with the right techniques, they can! You don't need to do everything at once, but starting small by changing how you prepare for bedtime each night is a great place to start.

If you have any more questions or concerns about your child's sleep issues, please don't hesitate to contact us here at The Slumber Academy. We will give you a free 15-minute sleep consultation to ease your worries and know your child's needs.

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