Guest Post: How to help your sensory child sleep better and focus better in school
Today’s guest post is by Lora Jacobson.
That time of the year when we pack lunches and backpacks, set out clothing, and make sure our child is stocked up with school supplies. Or maybe you’re putting the final touches on your curriculum plans and rethinking the space ideas for your home studies.
Whether you’ve been at this for a few weeks now and have already settled into a routine, or you’re still a week or two out and are savoring the last few days of summer break (or maybe you’re actually waiting with bated breath for the fall routine!)… are you prepared?!
There are two things that can torpedo your child’s learning faster than anything else.
They exacerbate her ability to cope with stress, introduce reactionary behaviors that are frustrating for herself and everyone involved, and create tension where everyone just wants to relax and have fun.
Your young student is bouncing around in his seat and can’t manage to stay quiet while his teacher attempts to address the class; he tries to sit and do his schoolwork, but struggles to focus in class or at home.
Perhaps your student does brilliantly at school, but struggles because the sensory overload puts her under so much stress that she comes home to an almost guaranteed meltdown and the teachers have no idea what’s going wrong.
You’ve gotten to know your child so well that you can spot the meltdowns coming from a mile away, but prevention still feels elusive. Some small, seemingly insignificant thing takes place that becomes the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, and she melts because everything is just too much and it feels as if the world is ending.
Sound familiar? You’ve been there, haven’t you?
Sleep disturbance and sensory processing issues typically come hand in hand, regardless of whether the egg or the chicken comes first. The reasons or the possible diagnoses are different for every kid.
Maybe it’s sensory processing disorder, or ADD/ADHD, or Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or a handful of other possibilities. Or maybe somewhere along the line she never got on into a good sleep rhythm and it’s affecting every part of her life.
Whatever it is, you are certain (no matter what your in-laws say behind your back) that it’s more than just your child “being a kid” or a need for “better discipline”; your child is not “just picky” or “too impulsive”. It’s more than that (1).
It was occupational therapists (OTs) who initially began identifying an explanation for a lot of otherwise puzzling behaviors. They combine the works of innovators such as Patricia Wilbarger, OTR and Dr. A. Jean Ayres to holistically address the sensory needs of each patient. They evaluate the individual’s over- and under-sensitivities in each of the senses (the traditional five: sound, taste, touch, smell, vision, plus two more: proprioceptive, and vestibular).
One person described our sensory processes as each of us having big cups or small cups, and we can have big cups or small cups in different senses at the same time.
When our cup is large, we can’t get enough stimulation or input and continue to seek that input (a child that can’t get enough vestibular input might seek more through bouncing and crashing and jumping, for example).
When our cup is small, we are easily overwhelmed by that input and can react to that very strongly. Nobody likes scratchy tags in their clothing, for example, but for some the input of even a seam is so strong that they can’t adjust or think of anything else until their clothing is changed, modified, or turned inside out.
OTs will work with a patient to help them find the input that they are seeking and help them increase their ability to handle stimulation that overwhelms them. As one kid said, “…it helps to go to an occupational therapist. When I leave, my body feels better; it feels like my body is in control” (2).
One of the awesome things about occupational therapy is that most (if not all) of the therapy is non-pharmaceutical and non-invasive. When specifically addressing sleep disturbances, OTs assist families in making careful trial changes to bedtime routines, habits, and patterns, and use various strategies and interventions to address sensory avoiding or sensory seeking behaviors.
Some of the things that they might use include: Walburger protocol, loose or tight pajamas, lightweight or weighted blankets, isometric exercises, brushing or beanbag tapping techniques, etc. (3, 4) Some of the benefits of sensory integration therapy include the ability to transition between activities, an improved ability to pay attention, and an increase in self-regulation (5).
While scientists have had a difficult time isolating exactly WHY these therapies work (there are lots of theories, but few long-term clinical studies), it has become commonly accepted that they are helpful and, when applied thoughtfully and with an OTs guidance, they can be extremely beneficial.
If you do a Google search on “sensory activities” or “sensory toys” that can be used as part of sensory integration therapy, you will find more products, hacks, and DIYs than you ever dreamed, all designed to help your child get the stimulation they are looking for in an effective manner. But today I’m going to narrow our focus to just two products that address your child’s sleep and focus: weighted blankets and weighted lap pads, respectively.
You can know if your child would benefit from a weighted blanket and how to go about shopping for one.
What is a weighted blanket?
Do you remember sleeping under your great-grandma’s quilt and how the heaviness of it felt comforting? It’s kinda like that. The deep pressure sensation of a weighted blanket covering the body can calm one’s system down and feel like a hug if you drape it just right. The blanket becomes the go-to comfort blanket and sleep aid and sense of security, which is especially useful for sleep.
When I make weighted blankets and lap pads, I pay special attention to the texture of the blanket for those who are particularly touch-sensitive.
If a weighted blanket is too large to be appropriate for the setting (like in a school classroom, for example), a weighted lap pad is the perfect substitute. Some find they really need the weight to help keep them focused.
The pressure from the weight allows a child to self-organize which encourages her to relax when hyper, restless, or stressed, making transitions from one activity to another more seamless and avoiding (or calming) meltdowns. There are parents who have borrowed their child’s weighted blanket so they can have their OWN #sensoryoverload time-out!
Last year, one of the teachers in our local elementary school permanently “borrowed” the new lap pad from the special education department. Upon inquiry (because the SE dept wanted it back!) administration discovered that one of her students who had previously been unable to focus and whose movement was consistently distracting the other students was suddenly able to focus on his studies when he used the weighted lap pad.
The teachers and school administration were so excited about this child’s success! They told me it was “like magic” and ordered several additional weighted lap pads for other students both in and outside the special education department. (This makes it the perfect companion for something like Beeyoutiful’s essential oil blend, Bee Focused).
How do I know if my child needs a weighted blanket?
- Does your child pile on the blankets or pillows in order to sleep?
- Do you wish you could get him a blanket that would be heavy but magically also not make him overheat?
- Does she ask for someone to lay on top of her to calm her or help her organize herself?
- Does he find the weight of a dentist’s x-ray apron comforting?
While this is not a exhaustive list, if you answered YES to those questions, then it is highly likely that a weighted blanket is the perfect choice for supporting your child’s healthy sleep patterns. The calming properties, the relaxation, the sense that all is right in the world: all those things promote sleep — getting to sleep, getting to a deep sleep, staying asleep.
Parents of kids who have struggled with disturbed sleep for years (some well into their elementary years) report that their child finally SLEPT ALL NIGHT after beginning to use a weighted blanket.
I’m sure my child needs one — how do I go about shopping for a weighted blanket?!
That’s a great question! That’s exactly why I prepared a free print-friendly checklist: How to Shop for a Weighted Blanket or Lap Pad.
I’m a big fan and long-time customer of Beeyoutiful (it all started with SuperMom and I just can’t quit!) so for a limited time, fellow Beeyoutiful fans, followers, and customers who download the guide will ALSO get an exclusive coupon for use at Lora’s Weighted Blankets that will be good for free shipping with purchase of a lap pad when the new lap pad collection is released over Labor Day weekend.
Click here and get your coupon and free download today!
Do you know someone who could benefit from reading Lora’s advice today? How could incorporating her strategies help someone in your own family? Let us know!
1. Sensory Processing Issues Explained: Tantrums, clumsiness, ‘immaturity’ all could point to problems taking in the world, by Beth Arky, Published: October 26, 2011 http://www.childmind.org/en/posts/articles/2011-10-26-sensory-processing-issues-explained
2. A Child’s View of Sensory Processing, posted by ESGWNRM on Jul 5, 2012 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1G5ssZlVUw&feature=youtu.be
3. Fact Sheet for American Occupational Therapy Association, developed by Meryl Marger Picard, MSW, OTR, 2012 “Occupational Therapy’s Role in Sleep”, direct download linked here: http://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy/Professionals/CY.aspx
4. The Sensory Modulation Program for Adolescents & Adults , by Tina Champagne, ME.d., OTR/L, posted 2008
5. Therapeutic Brushing Techniques: The Wilbarger Deep Pressure and Proprioceptive Technique (DPPT) & Oral Tactile Technique (OTT) by Tina Champagne, 2007http://www.ot-innovations.com/content/view/55/46/