What is sensory overload and how does it affect sleep?

Written by Super User. Posted in Blog

As Occupational Therapists, we consider many components of a child’s development when assessing their current sleep patterns and making a plan to move towards their sleep goals.

A significant piece of information about a child’s makeup is their sensory profile. This is the way in which each unique child processes the sensory information around (and inside) them. Processing is taking the sensory information in and the neurological system’s response to this information. Children can under- or over-respond to sensory information or can have an adaptive/positive response which serves them well in whatever occupation (activity) that they are engaging in.

Let’s look at an example. Nicky, a 2 week old infant has been awake for about 30 minutes. She is laying on her mom’s lap while her mom sings her “the wheels on the bus” while bouncing her along and moving her arms. Her mom is looking into her eyes. Nicky begins to avert her gaze and then starts to fuss. She’s got too much going on from a sensory perspective and her behaviours are telling us to take a step back, reduce the amount of inputs we are providing and then determine if she needs help to calm and re-focus.

Sensory overload is when a child’s thresholds have been exceeded and they are no longer able to adaptively and positively respond to sensory input. This effect can accumulate in a defined period or over the course of a day. A child who is in overload may have difficulty calming their bodies down and have very limited ability to cope with any more sensory inputs.

So, what does this have to do with sleep? In order for our children to settle into sleep, they must be able to calm their bodies. If they are in a state of sensory overload, they will likely have difficulty calming down independently and will require parent assistance and more time to settle down to sleep. They may also more have difficulty maintaining sleep.

What to do?

  1. Provide different kinds of sensory stimulation at different times during the day. For example, swinging (vestibular), fast paced songs (auditory) and new foods (taste) are all inputs that may be alerting to the nervous system. Do these kind of things after your child is well rested, during an active time of the day. Deep hugs (Proprioception), dim lighting (visual), firm massage (tactile/touch) are calming inputs that can be put in place closer to sleeping time.

  2. Watch your child’s cues for sensory overload. Children can go both ways; either escalating or shutting down. If you notice a sharp change in your child’s behaviour, step back and consider what you/the environment are asking him to process and see if the inputs need to be dialled down or if you need to infuse some calming inputs to balance the situation out.

Newborns and infants can easily become over stimulated and this can affect their ability to settle off to sleep. Understanding that the world around them can hold both the “just right” and “too much” stimulation is key to helping them regulate themselves during the day and to get quality sleep at night.

Karen Randall, BsC(OT) Registered Occupational Therapist