What Is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)? How SPD Affects Sleep? Update 10/2022

For the umpteenth time, I found myself muttering, “Back to bed.” In spite of the clock reading 9pm, my preschooler remained awake. There were three things that were keeping him awake in his room: the darkness, his air conditioner, and his “scratchy” pants. I was convinced that this youngster was attempting to prolong bedtime by any means necessary, or that he simply wished to cause damage to my hair!

When my son was finally diagnosed with autism and SPD, it was as if a lights went out in our heads. My daughter’s constant tantrums, aversions to noise and bright lights, and fussy eating finally made sense. A lack of sleep exacerbated symptoms, making it the most difficult to deal with. Sleeping with SPD, on the other hand, can be a challenge.

People with sensory processing disorders (SPD) and their families have various resources at their disposal. Here, you’ll learn about what sensory processing is, how it affects sleep, some symptoms to look for, and how to improve sleep with a sensory-friendly bedtime routine.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

This process is known as Sensory Integration, and it involves your central nervous system taking in and processing information from each of your body’s eight senses.

The eight senses are as follows:

  • auditory
  • visual
  • tactile
  • olfactory
  • vestibular
  • proprioceptive
  • interoception
  • gustatory

The body’s responses are abnormal when the central nervous system has trouble interpreting any of these sensory input, and this can be shown in difficulties with motor, language, or behavioral skills. Sensory Processing Disorder (often known as SPD) is the term used by occupational therapists to describe these symptoms.

Here is a resource that might help you learn more about the different forms of sensory processing disorders that can affect you.

Dysregulation or sensory overstimulation/overload can occur when a youngster is unable to process and respond to the world around him. Getting a youngster to sleep can be a challenge if he or she has sensory processing disorder (SPD).

SPD vs. Autism

My son, who has been diagnosed with Autism, also has sensory issues. More than half of children with autism have a co-occurring SPD, and sensory issues were recently added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It doesn’t entail, however, that every child with SPD is also autistic or that every autistic child has sensory difficulties.

For example, children with Autism are known to have a dysfunctional sympathetic and neuroendocrine system, which can lead to an elevated cortisol response to stressful situations. Increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol are one of the hallmarks of a person’s well-known fight-or-flight response in the face of a perceived threat.

This “danger” could be a crowded mall, a new teacher at school, or even a lump in their mashed potatoes for children with Autism. A child with sensory dysregulation may suffer a physical and emotional response to sensations they are unable to interpret, similar to how my pulse and blood pressure spike when I see a bug in my bathroom.

SPD and sleep difficulties go hand in hand, as you’ll see in the next section. As a general rule, sleep problems are linked to practically every behavioral and psychological disorder in children. Approximately 40% to 80% of children with Autism have difficulty sleeping, which can exacerbate their symptoms.

SPD vs. ADHD

“That kid has ADHD” has probably crossed your mind if you’ve ever encountered a child who couldn’t sit still, was playing rough with others or was running around and touching things they shouldn’t be. However, a lot of these actions can be attributed to sensory seeking, in which a youngster seeks out more stimuli in order to keep their arousal at a healthy level. As a result, it can be difficult to distinguish between ADHD and SPD because many of the symptoms match. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a child’s ability to sit still and focus. As a result, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are unable to focus or follow instructions from their teachers or caregivers. A child’s self-esteem might be harmed if they are often told they are “trouble-makers” because they don’t pay attention or behave appropriately. When a child with ADHD or SPD engages in sensory-seeking behaviors, he or she may experience anxiety, guilt, and even melancholy as a result.

Sleep Cycles, Sleep Problems, And The Neurochemicals Of Sleep

Until the procedure doesn’t go as it should, you’re suffering from insomnia. Sleep is a complex process that involves activating and inhibiting different areas of your brain.

Only then do you grasp the enormity of what’s taking place when you’re attempting to doze off. We’re going to simplify a complex process by focusing on melatonin and cortisol, two important neurochemicals or hormones because they’re associated with sleep and sensory processing.

How Melatonin Helps Us Sleep

An individual’s circadian rhythm is a 24-hour sleep-wake schedule. A regular sleep and wake schedule is dependent on your brain’s hypothalamus regulating these circadian rhythms. The hypothalamus is in charge of regulating the brain’s production of melatonin, a neurochemical that aids in the process of exhaustion.

An imbalance in melatonin levels can disrupt a child’s circadian rhythm, making it difficult to get him or her to fall asleep at night! Dysregulation of melatonin levels can cause sleep disturbances in children with a sensory processing disorder. Instead of having low levels during the day and high levels at night (to induce sleepiness), the opposite can occur, causing the cycle to be disrupted.

How Cortisol Affects Our Sleep

Cortisol is another neurochemical that influences sleep patterns. Stress hormone cortisol is released when youngsters are nervous, agitated, overstimulated, and/or in sensory overload. Cortisol levels are typically greater in the morning (to wake up the body and brain) and progressively decline during the day until they are at a low point when it’s time to sleep. To be sure, it’s possible that sensory processing difficulties will have the reverse effect if the youngster is constantly dysregulated.

Sensory Processing Disorders And Sleep Problems

As a neurochemical process, sleeping allows our bodies and minds to recharge for the challenges of the day ahead. Neurochemicals that regulate your sleep-wake cycle or sleep patterns (REM, non-REM) aren’t interacting properly, causing sleep disorders and disrupting your daily life.

Cortisol levels and melatonin levels in children with sensory processing disorder are abnormally high and low, which is contrary to what is expected and advised for healthy sleep patterns.

Sleep problems in children may be linked to unusual sensory activities. This is supported by research showing that behavioral and physiological markers accurately identify excellent sleepers from poor sleepers with an accuracy of 85.7%.

One of the main goals of sensory integration treatment is to stimulate the generation of neurochemicals that function as a counterbalance to one another and help regulate and arouse the body at various times, including during sleep.

How to Recognize SPD

Identifying the indications and symptoms may be an “aha” moment for you if you’re not familiar with the idea that behaviors might be caused by a lack of or excessive sensitivity to sensory information. The first step in helping your child learn to cope with their sensitivity is learning to understand their sensory seeking or avoiding behaviors.

Parenting a child with SPD necessitates much investigation. Understanding the trigger or whether your child is sensory seeking or avoiding may be straightforward to recognize the various behaviors, but this may not always be the case. In addition, it’s difficult to predict because it can fluctuate during the day and even hourly.

However, the positive side is that as you watch and learn from your child, you’ll discover a pattern in their reactions to specific stimuli, and you’ll know exactly how they would respond in a certain situation. Your ability to advocate for your child and assist them to learn to recognize their own triggers, building resiliency, and boosting their self-esteem, will be greatly enhanced by this information.

Sensory Avoiding

The most prevalent type of sensory sensitivity is sensory avoidance, which is characterized by an overpowering reaction to a trigger. Triggers include bright lights, loud noises, itchy textiles, and crowded environments. Covering one’s ears, running away from a busy store, or even having a sensory meltdown are all examples of reactions. Even while this form of a meltdown can be mistaken for a tantrum, it’s more severe because there’s nothing a youngster can do to regulate their conduct.
Here are some common signs to watch for:

  • Doesn’t like to hear loud noises, or is quickly shocked by them.
  • Bright lights irritate her.
  • Has an aversion to being hugged or cuddled.
  • Is often irritated by garment labels or scratchy textiles.
  • Smells are a trigger for this person.
  • Avoids some foods because of their textures or tastes.
  • Easily overwhelmed by a crowded or busy environment.
  • Involved in frequent rages.
  • Having difficulty falling asleep, waking up frequently, and waking up early in the morning are all symptoms of insomnia.
  • Sleep deprivation has left me feeling groggy and drowsy.
  • Has a low tolerance for novelty or experimentation.
  • Pain sensitivity is becoming more acute.
  • Never the right temperature.
  • Avoids amusement park rides and playgrounds.
  • Vomiting and stomach ache on a regular basis (easy gag reflex).

Sensory Seeking

Those who are less sensitive are more likely to seek out intense sensory stimuli than those who are more sensitive. It is impossible to function without sensory input, and without it, we feel unsure of ourselves. In order to make sense of the world around them, children who seek more stimulation are simply seeking a condition of equilibrium.
 Signs of sensory seeking may include:

  • Moving at a rapid pace.
  • It’s time to up the volume on your TV or other devices.
  • a high threshold for pain
  • Having difficulty falling asleep, waking up frequently, and waking up early in the morning are all symptoms of insomnia.
  • It’s never-ending.
  • “Wired” instead of “weary” in the evening.
  • Tickles slaps, and roughhousing are among her favorite pastimes.
  • Often unaware that they’re playing too hard.
  • Bright lights are her favorite thing.
  • Always on the move.
  • Inability to rest.
  • Having a hard time concentrating.
  • I’m prone to get sidetracked easily.
  • touches everything.
  • Spicy and sour foods are his favorite.
  • Wants to savor the aromas of all things.

These lists are by no means comprehensive, but they provide a visual representation of what sensory seeking and avoidance behaviors might look like. It’s likely that your child exhibits a mix of over-and under-sensitivity depending on the day or situation if they exhibit behaviors from both lists. One symptom appears on both lists, and that is difficulty sleeping, as you may have observed.

Sleep Challenges for SPD in Children

No matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t sleep one night since your room felt like a sauna? There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night because I’ve consumed too much caffeine before going to sleep. Like that, but much worse and practically every night for children with SPD.

Parents and health care providers alike look at sleep disturbances as a major red flag, and they may even have caused you as a parent to begin researching sensory disorders. Sleep is essential for everyone, but it is especially critical for children’s developing brains. Nearly every element of health and well-being suffers as a result of its absence.

How SPD Affects Sleep

As a result of their sensory difficulties, children find it difficult to sleep. To get some shut-eye, individuals can find it difficult due to things like a snoring child or a noisy heater. They might also be bothered by the bumpy mattress or a recurring thought. All of the same variables can keep babies awake at night and cause them to wake up early in the morning, no matter how sleepy they are.

When it comes to sleep deprivation and sensory difficulties, the cycle repeats itself over and over. Motor coordination, attention, cognitive ability, and executive functioning are all affected by sleep, as are behavior and personality traits. It’s possible for youngsters who are already sensitive to sensory input to have more intense reactions when they don’t get enough sleep.

In contrast to children without SPD, those with SPD have a difficult time shutting down the region of their brain that processes sensory stimuli, preventing them from falling asleep and increasing their erratic behavior.

The Science Behind SPD and Sleep

Tactile (touch) sensitivity was found to be the most important predictor of sleep disorders, and both tactile sensitivity and sensation seeking were revealed to be the most significant predictors of behavioral problems in children.

For parents of children with sleep difficulties and SPD, you know that when your child doesn’t receive enough sleep, their behavior escalates quickly and it might feel impossible to get them (and you) the sleep they so badly need in order to better handle their condition.

More than 14,000 youngsters with eczema (a severe skin rash) were shown to have a decreased quality of sleep as a result of their sensory sensitivities. Researchers have found that poor sleepers have problems with sensory gating throughout the moment when they are unable to fall asleep. As the brain’s gatekeeper for sensory input, sensory gating controls the brain’s ability to filter out unwanted stimuli.

SPD and Nervous System Function

The parasympathetic nervous system’s involvement in children with SPD is another first (PNS). Autonomic neural system branch that works with the sympathetic nervous system to regulate our reactions to the world around us on a moment-by-by-moment basis. Our fight-or-flight response is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, while the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) seeks to calm this stress response.

When faced with a stressor or challenge, children with SPD have difficulty self-regulating and recovering. The ability to adapt to a wide range of changing stimuli has been linked to high PNS activity, while low PNS activity has been linked to bad behavior and restricted flexibility.

The ability of infants and children with low PNS activity to self-soothe is diminished, as is their ability to control their emotions, as well as their tendency to exhibit higher levels of behavioral inhibition. What’s the connection between all of this and sleep? The autonomic nervous system is critical in the regulation of sleep and is negatively affected when it is not working properly. As a result, it may be more difficult for some children to fall asleep at night as a result of their exhaustion and lethargy throughout the day. Some children may be kept awake for hours after the lights go out by the sensation of their sheets or pajamas against their skin. With SPD, it can be tempting to dismiss a kid’s need to change their blanket or have a companion to sleep with as a way to delay bedtime, but the child is simply trying to manage their strong sensory reactions in order to go asleep.

If I had to hear my son’s complaints about the tenth time in a row, I’d get a little irritated. Now that I’ve discovered what his sleep needs are, I’ve learned how to adapt his nighttime ritual and bedroom to meet those needs.

External observers may mistake sensory processing difficulties for bad behavior or outright rebellion. It’s true that most kids have a hard time adjusting to nighttime and become gremlins when they’re overtired. When it comes to kids who suffer from sensory overload, no matter how hard they try, they are unable to control their responses.

How To Help Sleep Issues For Those With SPD

An occupational therapist can help your child who has trouble falling asleep due to sensory processing disorder develop a nightly routine and sensory diet just for him.

Deep Pressure Therapy

Pressure is applied to the body in the form of Deep Pressure Therapy or Deep Touch Pressure to boost the production of serotonin, which aids in the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.

Weighted blankets and strong massage may be useful additions to your bedtime routine for increasing melatonin production.

A sensory compression sheet is an additional choice. Compression is provided by the use of these plush, stretchy sheets that wrap around the mattress. A weighted blanket provides the same level of personalized compression with varied weights as a breathable blanket, but a breathable blanket does not.

It’s up to your kid to decide between a weighted blanket and a sensory compression sheet!

Reduce Blue Light Exposure Before Bed

Light inhibits the generation of melatonin, so avoid bright lights and devices at least an hour before bedtime. In our post on sensory lighting, we discussed the importance of thinking about how your child’s room is lighted and whether or not the light sources used encourage excellent sleep habits.

Check out that article for many more wonderful suggestions on how to illuminate your home at night without disrupting your circadian cycle.

Supplements

You should talk to your child’s doctor about whether or not Melatonin pills are appropriate for them.

Several vitamins, herbs, and minerals have been shown to aid with the sleep of youngsters. Zinc, magnesium, and vitamins B6 and B12 are a few examples.

Check out Harkla’s post on Melatonin and Autism to learn more about this topic.

Aromatherapy

Relaxation can be achieved by the use of essential oils in baths, sprays, lotions, and bedtime baths soaks, such as lavender, vanilla, and chamomile (thereby decreasing cortisol levels).

 

Preparing Your Child’s Bedroom

Adults are known to invest a significant amount of time and money into finding the perfect mattress, soft bedding, firm pillow, and even an upscale alarm clock. While choosing bedding and nightwear for our children, we tend to prioritize their current favorite superhero or princess over what’s most comfortable and least likely to cause allergic responses. The bedroom is the ideal place to start for children with SPD and sleep difficulties.

What Pajamas Are Best?

Pajamas may irritate children who are overly sensitive to tactile stimuli. Because it is loose and light, a large cotton t-shirt may be more comfortable. Compression shirts, which are seamless, tagless garments that deliver deep sensory pressure compression, are an excellent option for children who want additional tactile input.

What Sheets and Blankets Should I Choose?

It’s possible that your child will sleep better if you remove their covers from their bed each night. To aid children who long to be “tucked in” or have a companion in bed, a compression bed sheet and/or a weighted blanket may be appropriate. In addition to providing deep compression therapy, both of these products may assist your child to fall asleep without you by their side.

Other Bedroom Considerations

Investigate your child’s room tonight to see if there are any sensory triggers that are keeping your youngster up. A ticking clock, bright night lights, and a place that’s a bit too warm could all be indicators. White noise machines, room darkening curtains, and a ceiling fan have all been shown to be incredibly effective in assisting my son with his sleep issues.

Ideas for Bedtime Sensory Activities & Tools

You may have heard of the concept of a “sensory diet” for children with SPD, which involves using tools and activities that are specifically tailored to meet your child’s sensory needs. This “diet” is based on a person’s specific hypo and hypersensitivities, which can be used to promote sleep and balance. Despite the fact that these methods have worked for many children, it is crucial to consult with your pediatrician to determine what is best for your child.

Blowing Bubbles

Taking a deep breath and completely emptying one’s lungs are required when blowing bubbles, which is a relaxing experience for children. Blowing bubbles can help youngsters relax and quiet their bodies in the same way that deep breathing techniques are used in yoga and meditation.

Try Essential Oils

The calming characteristics of many essential oils make them ideal for usage in the bedroom with young children. In some cases, a blend particularly for children is available from the company. When using essential oils, they can be applied to the skin, massaged into the skin, or diffused.

Cuddle Swings

Cuddle swings resemble a large sheet draped from the ceiling and completely encircle the child, much like a hammock. By swinging them back and forth, this sensory experience can deliver deep pressure therapy and stimulate the vestibular system.

Weighted Blanket

A weighted blanket is a thick, heavy blanket filled with plastic or glass weighted pellets sewed into the pockets. Like being hugged or embraced, this provides a mild restriction. This type of deep pressure therapy can help children with SPD sleep at night.

Pillow Fort

At the end of the day, kids who are sensory seekers tend to have a lot of extra energy. This is the time of day when parents are at their most drained and inventive when it comes to playing with their children. Having children create a pillow fort out of extra blankets and pillows is a simple way to burn off some of their excess energy (you may even find them sleeping in it once their construction work is done).

Noise-canceling headphones

Sleeping is difficult for some children because they can’t shut off the noises and sights around them. It’s possible that even the sound of the air conditioner and the wind blowing may keep them awake for hours after they’d gone to sleep. A noise-canceling headset could help them sleep better by filtering out the world around them so they can concentrate on just one thing: sleeping.

Advice for Adults with SPD

As an adult, living with sensory processing difficulties can be even more difficult due to social expectations and pressures. Symptoms may get better with time, but they may never completely go away. Adults with SPD may find ordinary things like work, shopping, and even relationships difficult because of their condition. It’s understandable that grownups may be more resistant to change because they’ve established strategies for masking their symptoms and managing their conditions. However, adults are more sensitive to therapeutic therapies than children if they are willing to accept aid. As an adult with SPD, talk to your doctor about arranging an appointment with an expert in this field.

Conclusion

While it takes time, patience, and a great deal of detective work to figure out your child’s specific sleep-related sensory needs, the benefits of doing so will become apparent as you discover their unique triggers. Is it necessary for your youngster to sleep with a companion all the time? A weighted blanket or plush animal may be able to assist!

As the parent, you have the most intimate knowledge of your child’s specific sensory needs, making you the best person to devise a personalized bedtime ritual for them. Despite the fact that you may not be able to completely turn off the heightened sensory regions of their brain, you can help dim things a little so that everyone can get the sleep they need.

FAQs

Could my child have sleep apnea?

You should rule out any medical disorders that may be keeping your child awake at night when they’re having trouble sleeping. Children of all ages can be affected by sleep apnea, a sleep breathing disease. In addition to snoring and pauses in breathing, a person’s mood and conduct might be affected by sleep apnea.

Does my child need medication?

SPD is currently not treated with any specific drugs. Prescription medicine may be used in some circumstances to help children with SPD control their behavior and reduce their level of anxiety. A short-term prescription for sleeping pills may be recommended by your pediatrician if your child’s lack of sleep is seriously affecting his or her daytime performance.

Could there be side effects worsening sleep?

Sometimes, drugs designed to help mood and behavior have side effects that make it more difficult to sleep at night. When your child’s body becomes used to the drug, this side effect may go away. Speak to your child’s pediatrician if sleep problems persist and ask for advice on how to get your child the rest he or she needs.
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