Why won’t my kid go to sleep?? This is a question I have often asked. But I have children with sensory issues. And sometimes, that can interfere with their ability to sleep. Their bodies crave sensory input, and that prevents them from sleeping. But everyone needs to sleep! So I use some tools to help my kids sleep at night.
Do you have a child with sensory issues? Sensory issues happen when the brain has difficulty organizing information from the senses. Our senses are sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. And there are a few others not commonly known – proprioceptive (the sense of where your body is in space), interoceptive (the sense of what is going on inside your body, ie hunger signals, etc), and vestibular (the sense of where your head is in relation to your body, sometimes also known as equilibrium or balance). Sometimes the information from the senses can be mixed up inside the brain, and either not be detected enough, or be overwhelming.
Misunderstood sensory issues frustrate many parents. We want to scream, “Why won’t my kid go to sleep already??” We don’t understand why our kids are climbing everything, or shriek at the sound of the vacuum. And at night, when we want them to just go to bed, it’s easy to think they are just being stubborn or difficult when your child seems to refuse to settle.
When your child won’t stay in bed
Why won’t my kid go to sleep? A child whose body is craving proprioceptive input will have difficulty staying in bed. The proprioceptive sensory system tells them where their body is in space. A person who has trouble telling where they are in the space around them will feel anxious or scared if they stay still. They constantly seek movement, because that extra impact of their body against physical objects gives them the sense of security they need.
At night, we need to be still in order to sleep. But if you need to move to feel secure, how can you stay still? Staying still is scary. If you’ve ever had the feeling of floating or spinning while laying in bed, that gives you a glimpse of what someone with proprioceptive sensory issues experiences every time they lay in bed. Not so much fun.
To help my daughter with this issue, I use weighted blankets. The weight of the blanket helps give her the sensory input she needs. It lets her know where she is in space without her having to move around. It feels comforting and gives her security.
How much weight?
The guidelines suggest that 1 lb per 10 lbs of body weight is appropriate. So a 40lb child would benefit from a 4 lb blanket.
To prevent your child from getting too hot, make sure that the room stays nice and cool. And don’t forget to make sure your weighted blanket is washable. These things can be expensive, but children do occasionally get sick. You don’t want to have to replace their weighted blanket every time they get a stomach bug.
When your child won’t stay quiet
Why won’t my kid go to sleep? A child whose sensitivity to noise is off the charts can react in two ways. They might constantly make noise, or seek noise, through music, talking, banging, drumming or any other form of noise. Or they may insist on absolute silence, and cry at the slightest disturbance.
Either way, it can be extremely frustrating at bedtime. Your child may wake to every little sound, or seem fearful and anxious at bedtime. Or they may not be able to stay quiet, and be playing, talking, singing, or otherwise making noise, and you’re constantly telling them to shush already.
One tool to use for both children would be some kind of white noise. White noise will drown out all the little sounds that disturb the child whose sleep is disturbed by sounds. Try soothing, but meaningful sounds, such as white noise apps, that generate the sound of rain falling, ocean waves, wind through trees, etc. For the child who is craving sound, try meaningless noise, such as a fan running.
Similarly, for older children, you could try meditation apps, that guide them into relaxation. Or try audiobooks, that will help them fall asleep to stories.
When your child resists falling asleep before you do
Why won’t my kid go to sleep? A child who is light sensitive will have trouble going to sleep when they know their parents are still awake. As long as there is light around, they seem unable to sleep. They may continually call for mom or dad, there may be frequent trips to the bathroom, or they may be constantly getting out of bed to peek out the door.
These kids almost make you smile while you’re exasperated. They aren’t intentionally driving you crazy, they just can’t sleep with any kind of light on.
For these kids, you’ll want to block out the light as much as possible. Light-blocking blinds or drapes on the windows are essential. They are even more so if you’re in a part of the world where the days can be quite long in the summer, and shorter in the winter. Or if you have streetlights nearby. You’ll also want to put some kind of insulation or stripping on their doors, to help block light from halls or other rooms.
If your child protests because they are afraid of total darkness, or insists on some kind of nightlight, it’s still possible. Use a red lightbulb in their nightlight, instead of a white or yellow one. Red light has been shown to not disrupt the brain’s sleep patterns the way blue light or white light does.
Sensory tools can promote sleep
Everyone can have a little quirk in their senses, and how their brain interprets the information. Some of us have more than others. And some people have so much disruption that it’s an actual disorder, because of the impact on their lives. So when I don’t know why my kid won’t go to sleep, I look for the sensory need that isn’t being met. No matter what the sensory issue, there are tools to help. Whether it’s a weighted blanket or being tightly wrapped up, whether it’s background noise or audiobooks, or maybe you use light blocking tools, there’s a way to help your child (and even yourself!) sleep better. All you need is the right support.