Sleep Problems and Sensory Regulation for Babies

Whose mood and behaviour isn’t affected by their sleep? We are generally much happier and focused after a good night’s sleep. For some, it takes ages to fall sleep while others zonk out right away. Myself, I can’t exercise before going to bed as I’m too awake. However, I have friends who say exercise helps them sleep faster and deeper.

Many babies I work with, particularly those born prematurely, also have sleep problems. Parents will try any and all strategies to help soothe their baby to sleep. Rocking, nursing, heartbeat sounds, swaddling, bathing before bedtime. Parents themselves are exhausted. Oftentimes, these babies are labeled as ‘colicky’ which technically refers to when a baby has abdominal discomfort however ‘colicky’ now seems to be overused to suggest a ‘fussy’ baby.

***It is critical to rule out gastrointestinal problems, food allergies, reflux, sleep apnea, ear infections, and medical issues.

Sleep is a regulatory process where a baby learns how to change and monitor their arousal level to self-soothe and fall asleep. Babies and young children with sleep difficulties likely have sensory processing or regulation difficulties. A baby who is HYPERsensitive to sensory inputs will have difficulty soothing or regulating themselves to sleep. This baby may not tolerate sucking on their hands to self-soothe or being rocked, and may wake up to the quietest of sounds. They are in sensory overload. On the contrary, a baby who is HYPOsensitive or seeks out sensory inputs may only be able to fall asleep after they’ve been swaddled tightly, bounced up and down, and patted firmly on their back. They need more sensory information to help them regulate their arousal level for sleeping.

When babies are unable to figure out how to soothe themselves they become fussy and irritable, more commonly described as ‘colicky.’ As this article says, there is no such thing as “just” a fussy baby.

A baby needs to regulate their arousal and sensory information for sleep. An OT can help parents sort out what sensory strategies to support sleep. According to Maria Anzalone, an occupational therapist from the States, “either way, they’re (babies are) out of sync.” They need to learn to regulate their arousal, sensations and emotions, and relationships. All of this impacts upon their sleep.

This is not something that parents should feel guilty about!

When a baby has sleep problems, it is important to also consider whether they may have sensory processing or regulation difficulties. An Occupational Therapist who specializes in treating infants can help to determine the baby’s sensory profile, which soothing strategies can help regulation based on the individual child’s needs.

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