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“But I’m Not Sleepy!”

As an occupational therapist and an “instant parent” with foster children, I have spent a lot of time researching, thinking, trialing, and working on sleep for all four of my children! My oldest has the highest need for sleep and also the most difficulty with sleeping. We have spent a great deal of effort adjusting his sleep environment and routine to meet his emotional needs and to deal with anxiety/fear around bedtime. My youngest is still an infant and his sleep needs are constantly changing with development, so we work hard on his routine and daytime schedule to help his sleep improve at night. Here are my favorite tips for adjusting your child’s sleep environment, routine, and schedule:

Environment

  • Consider how much light is in your child’s bedroom, and what kind of light. If your child, like mine, deals with a lot of anxiety and fear at night he/she may need more light to feel comfortable enough to fall asleep or may need to control the level of light to feel safe. I love nightlights that are light sensing, and get brighter as their room gets darker. We also use a multi-colored sensory light, and let our child choose the color the sensory light will give off before he goes to bed as part of his routine.
  • Consider your child’s individual sensory needs and preferences. If they like deep pressure input, they might sleep deeper with a compression sheet or weighted blanket (or both!). If they are sensitive to noise, they might stay asleep more consistently with a white/pink noise machine. If they are sensitive to light, try blackout curtains and a colored night light.
  • Think about what your child is seeing in their bedroom and see if you can move or hide toys and other items so that your child is less distracted as they are trying to fall asleep.

Routine

  • Consistency is so important! Keep your routine the same each night as much as possible.
  • Within your routine, give choices to your child wherever possible. Let them pick out their pajamas, choose which stuffed animals they sleep with, or pick the bedtime book.
  • For older children, post a visual schedule of their bedtime routine and encourage independence in following the schedule. You can even establish a reward system for following the schedule.

Schedule

  • Consider how much total sleep time you are allowing for your kiddo and if it’s age appropriate.
  • If your child takes a long time to fall asleep, start your routine earlier. If you need to adjust your bedtime, start slowly by 5-10 minute increments.
  • Help your child understand wake times. I love a light wake clock, which you can set to turn yellow when it’s close to wake time and green when it’s time to wake up!

It is important to note that each child has unique sleep needs, and these tips are by no means an exhaustive list! If your kiddo is struggling with sleep and it is impacting his or her ability to live life to the fullest, speak with your primary care doctor about an occupational therapy evaluation! An OT can help you establish a sleep routine that is designed specifically for your child’s sensory, emotional, and behavioral needs and that is doable for your family.

Sara Durham, MS OTR/L