Learn how to make a kid fall asleep with these simple tips you can start today. And, discover the secret sensory tricks that can change everything about how your child sleeps. Super important tips for sensory issues, sensory seekers, Sensory Processing Disorder, Autism, and ADHD.
Having a child that has trouble sleeping ranks at the top of the I-can’t-take-this-for-one-more-day parenting list, right next to picky eating and potty training.
Day in and day you fight the good fight, you try your hardest to get your kid to just fall asleep.
It’s a frustrating and exhausting challenge many parents face, but there’s a lot that can be done to help or “make” a kid actually go to sleep. And, there’s a piece of the not-sleeping puzzle that’s often overlooked…
Why do some kids have trouble sleeping?
Part of knowing how to help your kid sleep – and get your life back – is understanding why it’s a problem in the first place. Because sometimes, a small change in your routine can have a huge impact on how easily your child falls asleep. These are some common, but often overlooked, causes to poor sleep in kids (heck for adults, too!)
- Too much sleep – Seem obvious? It’s easier than you think to not give this a second thought, especially as our kids become toddlers, preschoolers, and even school aged children. That’s because how much sleep they actually need is always changing.
A 3 year old doesn’t need as much sleep as a 18-month old, and sometimes a long nap in the afternoon means they aren’t ready for bed at 8 pm anymore. Check out How Much Sleep Does My Child Need for specific guidelines for your kiddo!
- Too little sleep – While it’s our first assumption that kids will fall asleep faster when they’re exhausted, this often isn’t the case. Instead, when they’re overly tired, it’s difficult to get their mind out of the overdrive position they’ve been operating in.
If you’re child is falling under the recommended age guidelines and they still aren’t falling asleep, try moving their bedtime even earlier. It could actually help them fall asleep faster!
- Diet – Believe it or not, food allergies or sensitivities can make it difficult for a child to fall or stay asleep throughout the night. If your child is inconsistently having trouble sleeping, it would be helpful to keep a food diary and see if you can track any patterns, like “every time Suzie has dairy, she has a bad night’s sleep.”
If the problem is persistent every single night, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about possible testing or trying a food elimination diet for a short time to find a possible culprit! Dr. Amy Myers has more signs on food sensitivities and how to help them .
- Screen time – Although kids will often sit quietly and enjoy watching a show or playing on their tablet, the activity and glow from the screens can actually keep their minds very alert and prevent them from feeling tired. After screen time, they may have even more energy! If screen time is part of your routine before bed, you may want to experiment with taking it away before bedtime for a short time. Read more about the sleep and screen time connection here.
At the same time, and I say this with no judgment, if your child has had a lot of screen time throughout the day, even though it’s not before bed, they likely haven’t had enough physical activity and won’t feel tired either.
- Sensory – And, by sensory I’m talking about sensory processing. That means how our kids take in everything from their 7 senses (don’t forget proprioception and vestibular) and processes it in their mind. While it’s often given little thought, if a child isn’t processing that sensory information well, it can leave them sort of out of whack.
When there are difficulties with sensory processing, which is common for way more kids than most realize, sleep can be heavily affected. Calming our bodies down enough to go to sleep is a skill that most of us take for granted, but it can be extremely challenging to do that for a child that needs more or less sensory input.
If you’re new to sensory processing, you’re going to want to check out What is Sensory? for more!
We’re going to talk about some powerful sensory strategies for kids in a minute, but keep in mind that even if your child doesn’t have any sensory issues at all, sensory strategies can have a big impact on how fast any child falls asleep.
How to Help a Kid Fall Sleep – The Basics
Before we get to those trans-formative sensory tricks, there are some other basic tools you’ll need to help a kid get to sleep:
- Have a routine – If you do nothing else, set up a routine before going to bed for the night. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, but doing the same things in the same order every single night will make a significant difference in your child’s readiness to fall asleep. In our house, we take a bath or shower, get pajamas on, brush teeth, snuggle together, say a prayer, read a few stories, tuck into bed, and turn on a soft nightlight and lullaby music.
That’s our routine. Yours may look much different, but you get the idea! The key is to be consistent, the routine needs to happen the vast majority of nights for it to work.
- Give enough time – A lot of days by 8 pm I’m totally exhausted, it’s easy to let a couple minutes and then a couple more slide into starting that routine later than I intended, but the less time I leave myself, the more hectic the routine will be. And, that hectic-ness doesn’t exactly inspire sleep.
If you find yourself constantly rushing through bedtime, look at adjusting your start time so that you have plenty of time to have your child not feel rushed and calm enough to sleep. This is critical for kids that have a hard time transitioning between activities, or are also using sensory strategies as part of their routine – more on that in a minute.
- Trial and Error – Start to take note of what your child is doing before you start their bedtime routine. Are they running around outside, playing on their iPAD, eating a snack? Consider if that activity is possibly helping or hurting their ability to fall asleep.
While I can share all sorts of tips and strategies here that work for most kids, the truth is your child is totally unique. That means that a bedtime snack may help your child go to sleep, but for another it keeps them up later. Writing down what worked and what didn’t will help you begin to see any possible sabotagers or helpers to sleep.
The key is to look for patterns, this will be crucial as you consider what sensory tricks might help your child.
Sensory Tricks to Help Kids Sleep
Before I dive into all the amazing sensory tricks to help a kid fall asleep fast, I’ve got to point out that there’s two different ways to approach using them. Which way you decide depends on what camp your kid falls into:
1. Sensory for all Kids: Every single child has a sensory system that is unmatched to anyone else and even if they don’t have any sensory issues or needs, they probably have some preferences. We all do. When it comes to sleep, some of us prefer to sleep with no blankets or have a fan running, both are sensory preferences that help our bodies relax. This relaxed state is what we need to fall asleep.
In the list below, there will be some sensory tricks that your child may like, dislike, or are indifferent to. You may even have a good guess, knowing them as well as you do, as to what they may like. If so start there.
Of course, our kids are always full of surprises, so don’t hesitate to try something unexpected with them.
No matter what, the goal is to incorporate some sensory tricks into your bedtime routine and see if it helps them go to sleep faster, chances are it will. This is the “trial and error” strategy we talked about above. Heck, older kids can even read this list with you and choose some things to try!
2. For Sensory Kids – While we know that children that have Autism (ASD), ADHD/ADD, and obviously Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) all have sensory needs, there are some kids that have no diagnosis – and don’t need one – that also have a sensory system that’s out of balance.
That means they seek out or avoid sensations more than other kids their age. This only becomes a problem when it interferes with their ability to do the things they need to. Things like paying attention, eating, and sleeping.
Many kids with the these diagnoses, or more sensory issues than other kids, often are so distracted by the sensations they’re seeking or avoiding that they can’t focus on what they need to do. That means they’re out of balance or dysregulated. But, giving them sensory activities that they need gets them regulated.
And when they are balanced, or regulated, they CAN fall asleep, eat, and pay attention. That’s pretty good news, right!? The occupational therapy word for providing sensory activities to regulate the sensory system is – a sensory diet. Head to What is a Sensory Diet to learn more.
For kids with known sensory “problems”, their arousal level can be stuck on high.
It’s like their body doesn’t know how to calm down and switch gears so they are able to go to sleep.
That means your bedtime routine may need to be a little longer so that you have time to jump on a trampoline first, ride a scooter board, or crash into some pillows. Many kids that are sensory seekers (aka very active kids sometimes described as wild), need to have some activity that gives them proprioceptive input. Even though some of these activities may seem like they’re winding them up instead of down, they need to get those sensations to calm down. Are you with me?
Before bed, I like to pair these high energy sensory activities with rhythmic counting or nursery rhymes because if it gets too silly it could have the reverse effect. Let me show you what I mean in this short video:
Kids that tend to have sensory sensitivities will likely not need these high impact activities. And, some kids have a mix of seeking and sensitive tendencies, in which case you’ll need to experiment! (Check out my free sensory diet workshop to understand your child’s sensory needs better.)
Below you’ll find the list of awesome sensory tricks to help a kid fall asleep:
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Big Sensory Movements (Proprioceptive and Vestibular input)
- Rhythmic jumping up or down stairs, on bed, trampoline – try holding hands if your child is getting “too wild”
- Riding a scooter board – pushing themselves while laying on their belly
- Crash into pillows or couch cushions
- Crawl through a stretchy (resistance) tunnel
- Bounce on a large yoga ball
Slow Calming Movements (Vestibular Input)
- Riding a rocking horse
- Sitting in a rocking chair
- Swinging (hammock, porch swing especially)
Deep Pressure (Proprioceptive)
- Snuggling and hugs
- Weighted blanket – Find out if your child could benefit from a weighted blanket
- Weighted lap pad – Learn how to use and make your own weighted lap pad
- Blanket burrito – Wrap your child up tightly in a blanket so they can’t move (just like swaddling a baby), during or before story time
- Body sock – This is a stretchy sack your child can step into and wear
- Tight sheets – Tuck in tightly, as snug as a bug in a rug
- Vibrating toothbrush – Use before bed for extra input (side note: great tool for picky eating)
Calming Visual Input
- Completely Dark
- Soft light – Think a night light. My youngest son loves this slow color changing ones that kids can hold in their hands
- Lava lamp
- Lighted fish tank
- Roll on Essential Oils – Lavender and Vanilla are relaxing scents for a lot of people, but this is a blend of oils specially designed to promote sleep. The roll-on version is super easy to use with kids. Simply swipe a little on their wrists, back of their neck, or even on their chest.
- Essential Oils in the room – My oldest two boys love these little diffusers (which also happen to be slow changing night lights too!) I put a few drops of an essential oil in, turn it on, and the smell fills the room in a few minutes.
- Essential Oils in the bath – Add 1-2 drops of an essential oil that calms your child while filling the tub.
- Favorite stuffed toy – Some kids love to run soft textures through their fingers or squeeze while trying to fall asleep
- Preferred blanket – Lots of different textures, which one does your child like… Light, heavy, bumpy, silky?
- Warm Bath Before Bed
- Lotion before bed – Think gentle massage!
- Vibrating toy – these hand held toys or “snakes” that you can lay over your body can be extremely calming for kids that like or seek out vibration
- Soft Music
- White Noise – Can use an app, fan, white noise machine
- Reading stories – Make sure the lights are dim
Dreamy Food and Drinks
- Warm foods
- Soft foods
- Low sugar
- Chicken and turkey – Both of these are high in tryptophan which help with sleep
How I’d Help My Kid Fall Asleep (You got this!)
At this point, you might be wondering what bedtime will look like now that you’re going to include some sensory tricks. Well, let me give you an example… My son Isaac is a sensory seeker (he’s the one in the video above). He’s very active and loves rough housing. Sometimes he has difficulty following directions (particularly from his Dad and I) and transitioning to another activity.
If he were having trouble sleeping, I’d start with having him bounce on our small trampoline for 5-10 minutes while I sang a song with a repeatable beat. Something like the “The Ants go Marching One by One”. (I could also bounce him on top of a large ball or let him jump on the couch or his bed). I’d be careful not to let it get to silly.
Then, I’d give him a piggy back ride upstairs, this is calming deep pressure input. Or, if I were too tired (which is quite likely), I’d have him jump or stomp up the stairs, which he would love. If he didn’t, I wouldn’t force him to do it.
I’d brush his teeth with a vibrating toothbrush, have him get dressed, and sit in a dimly lit room to read a story while rocking him on my lap in a rocking chair. At the same time, I’d turn on the essential oil diffuser and when we were finished reading, I’d turn off the lamp so you can see the glow from the diffuser/nightlight.
Lastly, I’d tuck him in tightly, give him his favorite stuffed doggy, a hug, and a kiss goodnight.
Can you count how many sensory tricks I used in just this one example? Nine.
There are millions of ways you can put your routine together and some of the sensory activities might change from day to day, but the overall structure is the same. I love to help kids get involved with this process because they know better than anyone what their body needs. In this example, I could have used these sensory diet cards (those are my printable version) to give him a few choices.
Are There Sensory Red Flags You Could Be Missing?
If your new to Your Kid’s Table, you’re going to want to grab my free printable: 21 Sensory Red Flags You Might Be Missing. There are a lot of layers to sensory, but my mission is to make it easier for you. Learn what sorts of behaviors or actions your child does might point to a sensory need in this free printable.
Get Your Free Sensory Red Flags Printable Here (I’ll send it right to your Inbox)
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.