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Simple sensory tools to improve baby sleep (and yours too!)

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Simple sensory tools to improve baby sleep (and yours too!)

fed is best breast is mummy wars
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Sleep; it’s the top subject on any parent’s mind at some point on the parenting rollercoaster. Baby sleep can be particularly frustrating. They seem to wake up as soon as you are going to sleep. So, unsettled and wakeful nights are just a part of life with a new baby. However, there are some really simple things we can do to improve baby sleep. What’s more, these tips may well help you optimise your own sleep too! So, here I am going to look at sensory tools for sleep.

Eight senses, not five

the eight senses

We are taught about the five senses from primary school and beyond, however, we actually have eight. In addition to the familiar five; sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing; we have three more; interoception, vestibular and proprioception. These three senses can help to provide us with useful sensory tools when thinking about baby sleep. We have fact files on each sense, and I will link to these, but lets think through the senses and how they can help with sleep.

Interoception and baby sleep: the basics

Interoception is the awareness of our internal organs and our internal state of being and regulation. For example, it helps us to recognise when we are hungry, need to wee, are too hot, have an illness like appendicitis where the pain is internal.

Quite simply, when it comes to sleep, we need to make sure that our little one is not hungry (or thirsty), doesn’t need to use the toilet, or isn’t about to fill their nappy, and that their basic physical needs are met. You have probably experienced how hard it is to get to sleep when hungry, or needing to go to the toilet. These are needs that it is best to deal with in order to get settled, comfy, and relaxed for sleep. This is the kind of thing that we usually think about first when a baby is unsettled and that’s great. Hey, look, we’ve been supporting our babies’ interoceptive sensory regulation (and, you know, keeping them alive) before we even knew the sense existed! Go us, parenting win.

Interoception: sensory sleep tips for babies

  • are they hungry? Feed them first.
  • clean nappy?
  • need to poop? Let them get that out of the way first.
  • get the temperature right, too hot can be dangerous, too cold is uncomfortable.

Parent sleep

  • are you trying to get to sleep when really you need a wee? Just go, the 15 unsettled minutes you spend putting off the bathroom trip could be 15 minutes more sleep.
  • handy snacks: parent life is exhausting, eating regularly can sometimes go out of the window for a while, if you’re up in the night feeding a baby and feel peckish, have something handy. When I was breastfeeding my first baby I was really hungry at about 2am…so was he! I drank about a litre of water in the night, and had snacks by the bed for ease. It made it much easier to get back to sleep because I wasn’t hungry.
  • need to poop? Isn’t parenting great, you start discussing bowel movements with strangers! But seriously, feeling constipated is really not comfortable. Not drinking enough, not eating enough fibre, not responding to our body’s need to go when it tells us; all of these increase constipation, as can post birth toileting anxiety. If you’re constipated, try to resolve it. If drinking more and eating more fruit and veg doesn’t sort it, then speak to a GP. Stool softeners are usually the first line of laxative treatment to make pooping easier. Ok, I’m done talking poop now, but seriously, you’ll sleep better if you’re more comfortable.

The famous five senses and baby sleep

OK, so, we’ve thought about interoception and sleep. That’s our body’s basic needs taken care of. Next up, we are going to think about creating a positive sensory environment for sleep.

Conditioned sensory cues

If you think about a lot of the things that we do to feel sleepy, or to encourage our children to feel sleepy you can see that these work by creating relaxing sensory experiences. These are known as sensory sleep cues. If we use these cues repeatedly over time, we also condition an association between the sensation and feeling sleepy. This means that our baby starts to feel sleepy when we use the sensory cue. These cues can be really helpful for supporting baby sleep, and beyond. It takes time to condition these cues, however. Using them consistently when getting them to sleep will over time, we are talking a few weeks at least, help them to become conditioned cues.

You can have different rituals for naps to nighttime sleep. In fact, according toe lead infant sleep researcher, Helen Ball, from Basis napping in daylight is better for supporting babies to develop to sleep well at night, than is artificially darkening the room. This is because we want melatonin levels to peak at night, not in the day. Building sleep pressure will ensure that they nap enough during the day, without altering the light levels.

Babies and children experience the world through their senses much more strongly than we do as adults. Sensory calming cues can, therefore, be even more helpful in settling them to sleep.

Creating an optimal sensory sleep environment

The five senses we are familiar with are often know as environmental senses. They are sensing stuff that is going on around us. Seeing what is nearby, hearing the world around us, smelling the aromas of our current location, feeling what is touching us. These five senses offer a huge range of options for ways to support sleep. This here is me thinking through my thoughts, but this has got to work for you and your baby. You need to think about what you like and dislike, and most importantly for baby sleep, what they like and dislike.

So, here are some ideas for each sense, you do not have to do everything here, that would be a bit much. You don’t even have to do something from every section. This is just to get you thinking. If you’re currently happy with what you’re doing and everyone is getting to sleep well then there is no need to change it! You’ve got it cracked, you are creating a sensory sleep environment that work for you and your baby, that’s the goal, after all!

The visual sense and baby sleep

  • Light: I like it dark, some people prefer it dim but not dark for sleep.
  • Blue light disrupts melatonin production, this is the kind of light you get from screens. If you use a screen whilst getting your baby to sleep try to set it to red light. This is least disruptive. Red nightlights will also be least likely to impact baby sleep.
  • Nothing too exciting: once babies are fascinated by the world around them we want to avoid distractions when getting to sleep. Older siblings popping in to ask a question, people wandering past, interesting objects in easy reach. You don’t have to create a minimalist sleep zone, just see if your baby is getting distracted by stuff going on around them. Often, if you’re holding them, they’re facing you, and there’s nothing much to do here.

Parent sleep thoughts

  • You produce melatonin in response to daylight fading. Bright lights in the evening can reduce your melatonin production making it harder to go to sleep. Screen especially produce blue light. Softer light in the evenings, red light filters on your phone, or reducing evening screen time may help you settle to sleep more easily.
  • If your baby sleeps in your room avoid getting them used to a nightlight that makes it hard for you to sleep. Do you need a nightlight at all? We didn’t.
  • Visual distractions: for me this is having things near my bed that make me think of the things that I need to do. Thinking about that massive pile of laundry to put away that’s on my bedside table isn’t helpful. Can it go at the bottom of the bed out of sight?
hearing and calming . A child asleep wearing headphones alpha music can help sleep

Hearing: baby sensory sleep tips

So, first thing’s first. Babies aren’t used to silence, they’re used to the sounds of being inside their birth parent. They’re used to the sounds of your life going on around them. When everything is silent any tiny noise becomes a focus and a disturbance. Think calming sounds, here are some popular ideas:

  • white noise: there are loads of apps, the idea is to replicate the consistent low level, uninteresting noise like the sounds they heard in the womb.
  • alpha music: this is music with a tempo the same as a resting heart beat. It is designed to get your brain into the alpha wave producing state, which is the deeply relaxed state that precedes falling asleep…clever stuff.
  • any relaxing music
  • the radio/podcast/audiobooks
  • your breathing, heart beat and murmuring voice, because you’re holding them and they can hear those familiar sounds

Pro tip: keep sensory cues consistent

OK, so you’re using these cues now, it’s the evening and you’re getting baby to sleep for the first time tonight. You play your baby your chosen audible sensory sleep cue, and then once they’re asleep and settled you turn them off. When they wake in the night, these comforting sounds that they are used to are gone.

Those sensory sleep cues are designed to help your baby feel safe to sleep. They are trying to replicate the sounds of you there with them, keeping them safe. When they wake up they hear… nothing, and so they rouse more and signal for you. They need you to feel safe and relaxed. If the music is still playing, or the white noise app is on, or you are there, nearby, snuffling and snoring, they are less likely to wake up distressed. I am not promising they will now never be distressed at night, but it can help to ease them back into sleep for another sleep cycle.

Parent sleep thoughts

  • Are you sleeping in the same room as your baby? It is recommended until at least 6 months to reduce SIDS risk. If so don’t condition your baby to need a sound to sleep that you cannot stand! You are likely to be subjected to this a lot. I cannot stand white noise, so we didn’t use it
  • Play calming music you enjoy that will become familiar to them. We used a Kate Rusby playlist, and audiobooks. They still ask for Kate Rusby or to listen to an audiobook when they tired now aged 5 and 7. These things also help me sleep and I am happy to put them on in the middle of the night too if needed.
  • Do you use audible sensory calming before bed? It can give your mind something to focus on enough to avoid distracting thoughts and make it easier to drop off. You can use a sleep timer to avoid missing to much of a book or podcast if that helps.

Smell and sleep

What about smells? Well, the most calming smell for a baby is you. You are their safe place. In fact, you are the sensory environment we are trying to recreate to support your baby to sleep. You are associated with milk and warmth, comfort safety and love. Smell is a powerful sense and is strongly linked to the emotions, but it is easy to forget when thinking about sleep.

  • are you close enough to smell? Sensory cues that tell them that you are near and they are safe are one of the reasons that many babies settle most easily when sleeping with their parents. Our blog Newsflash: keep babies safe from sabre toothed tigers talk about the reasons for this. Bedsharing may be an option that gets you more sleep, because instead of using sensory cues to help ‘trick’ a baby into knowing you are close, you really are close. We have articles on bedsharing safety that you may find helpful if you are considering this option.
  • and safe comfort object that smells of you is next best. Cuski comforters are one option, they are not a cuddly toy, they are made of breathable fabric so don’t add risks in a cot. A muslin is another idea. If you keep one comforter tucked in your top, or sleep with it in your bed to get it smelling of you, and your baby has it during sleep it can help them feel safer.
  • use a calming scent: what about lavender oil in a humidifier. Something you can easily take with you places, that they will come to associate with sleep as well as you.

Parent sleep thoughts

  • Pick a scent for your baby that you like too. If lavender isn’t a smell you find calming pick something else. If you already use a scent to get to sleep, use that for your baby.
  • Conditioning sensory sleep cues for you can be helpful. It really can help you to relax and feel more like sleeping. You may find that, like your baby, you sleep better with them close, and their smell relaxes you, or the smell of your partner. How can you use this to create a calming sensory environment for your sleep?

Touch and baby sleep

There are two major elements to this: objects that touch them during sleep, and human touch.

Objects and touch

  • Make sure any objects you use are safe for them during sleep
  • Are clothes the right size? They aren’t digging in or pulling on tiny toes? No scratchy labels next to skin?
  • Sheets on the mattress are smooth and unwrinkled and nothing is putting pressure on them
  • Blankets/ sleep sacks are soft, but not tickly or irritating. Remember their sensory preferences may not be the same as yours.
  • Comforting touch, some babies and toddlers like to hold a blanket or muslin and stroke it as they fall asleep, or they stroke their face with it. This is a sensory stimulation (stim) that they find calming. They are helping to create their own soothing sensory environment, great stuff!

Parents, objects, and touch

  • Get comfy! Comfy sleep clothes, comfy sheets and blankets. Is your mattress supportive or does it have pokey bits? Is something irritating you when you try to get to sleep. Fix it. Brush the crumbs from that 2am snack out of the bed. Plump your pillows. It will help.

Human touch: senses and sleep

dad smelling head of sleeping newborn baby
  • this is the big one. Newborn babies are used to being inside a person. They have never been put down before. Most of them feel calmest, and so sleep best, when they are held, or lying on your chest, or in contact with you.
spotlight on the integra baby carrier connecta sarah sadley back carry charcol twist sleeping toddler
  • They fall asleep more easily in your arms or in a sling. They often stir and resettle of they are on or by you when they might otherwise wake up. It is OK that your baby falls asleep in your arms. It shows that they feel safe with you.

However, it can be overwhelming when it feels like nothing else will do. For some families, bedsharing is a way they sleep to meet this need for touch and closeness at night. However, all of the sensory cues above provide ways that can slightly take the pressure off you. They might help a baby get to sleep with someone else, or to stir and resettle without fully waking in the night.

The sense of taste and baby sleep

Lastly, taste. For young babies that taste is milk. Milk becomes associated with sleeping very early on for babies. Feeding is tiring, it fills them up, and they fall asleep. Human milk also contains tryptophan, which is needed to make melatonin, and at night it also contains melatonin because the feeding parent’s melatonin levels are higher, so it helps them fall asleep. And however you are feeding a baby, milk usually comes with cuddles, and human touch. It is not surprising they fall asleep really!

Young babies get hungry at night, milk will help them feel full and so go back to sleep again (if still tired). The taste of milk is familiar too. Like all conditioned sensory cues, this taste can become familiar and a predictable part of the getting to sleep ritual. It is OK for babies to feed to sleep, however they are fed.

If feeding to sleep has become unworkable, and you are certain that babies aren’t hungry (and they get hungry very often, because their stomachs are small and milk, especially human milk, is very quickly digested,) then you can find other ways to get them to sleep.

Again, this is where the other sensory cues come in. Before removing milk as part of their getting to sleep norm, try introducing other sleep cues and associations. When milk is removed they still have the dim room, that smells of you and soothing camomile, with calming music playing… There are lots of other cues in place and it can be easier to make milk less of a focus.

Much of this is more about hunger (interoception) than taste, but regardless, it’s all sensory regulation.

Two more senses

The last two senses, proprioception and vestibular, were mentioned at the start. We’re going to introduce them here and talk about how you can use them for sleep.

The proprioceptive sense and baby sleep

Proprioception is about the perception of the edges of our body. Where our limbs our in space and in relation to the rest of us. We can feel this without having to see our body. We don’t have to look at our foot to know where our step will place it. How does that relate to sleep? So, proprioception is linked to touch, but not in the sense of the texture of the object, but more, in relation to the pressure it exerts.

Clothing and proprioceptive input

Leggings offer high levels of proprioceptive stimulation, as they are skin tight, whereas loose fitting tracksuit bottoms offer low levels of input. Everyone has a different preference, however, babies are used to the environment of the womb. The walls were close. When they pushed out with a limb the walls of the womb pushed back. They were contained, always.

sleeping baby swaddled in knitted grey blanket. Swaddling calms the proprioceptive sense

Swaddling and containment

This is why swaddling can help calm a young baby, as does being held in your arms, or carried in a sling. These all provide gentle pressure and a sense of containment. Swaddling a baby who cannot yet roll, and is sleeping on their own sleep surface, can help offer containment for sleep. We demonstrate swaddling with Great Swandoodle giant bamboo muslins in our workshops.

Baby nest pillows

Baby sleep pillows act in the same way by creating a nest that offers containment. (However these pods are only for observed sleep, such as naps. They are safety tested as pillows, which means they are suitable for babies over 12 months, yet they are usually marketed at parents of newborn babies. They do not meet sleep safe guidelines.

Proprioception and adult sleep

Here are some things to consider for your sleep that rely on the proprioceptive sense:

  • What are your preferences? Does being tucked in with the covers around you feel overwhelming or comforting? Some people love proprioceptive input for sleep, and others don’t.
  • Weighted blankets offer deep, even pressure and can help sleep. So can a cotton crocheted blanket, as they are heavier than synthetic fabrics.
  • Wrap yourself in a sheet or blanket.
  • Wear loose or snug fitting pyjamas, according to you preferences. This can help you feel more safe, comfortable and relaxed for sleep.

The vestibular sense and sleep

Finally, the vestibular sense detects movement and orientation. The vestibular sense is what tells us that we are lying down before we open our eyes from waking. It is how we feel our body posture change when we are going up a steep hill in a vehicle. It is highly stimulated by going on a rollercoaster, swings or roundabout.

Baby sleep and the vestibular sense

When your baby is crying and you pick them up, what do you do?

Well, you probably change them from lying on their back, to an upright or less reclined position, for a start. And then? Then you rock them, pat them, sway as you hold them, walk around with them, dance with them, bob up and down.

Did you ever put your baby in the car, or the buggy, or the sling and move and find that they calmed down? Amongst other things, you provided vestibular sensory input that babies often find calming, and so they often go to sleep. Did I mention that young babies are used to being in the womb yet? But seriously, they are! They used to move with the body that provided their home, their entire world. They are not used to total stillness. Even when asleep their world was breathing, pulsing with life and movement. And now? That’s why there are bouncy chairs and self rocking cribs (but these are often not safety tested for baby sleep).

So, babies like to be rocked to sleep. We know this. You may rock them to sleep for every sleep, or just when they’re struggling. We may pop them in a sling for naps, or allow them to rest on our deep breathing chest. I used to find, lying next to a toddler who was dropping off, that if he stirred I could jiggle the mattress by moving my leg and he would relax back into sleep. Patting and jiggling his bottom helped too, and I could do that sitting by the bed. A gently moving hand on the chest provides pressure and vestibular input in a way that may help a baby, even one lying on their back in a cot.

Position

If you get your baby to sleep with them upright and their chest to your chest, then as you lie them on their back on a cot, for example their position changes hugely. Their weight will go through their back, not their front. They are changing from upright to lying. And they move through several positions to get there. Think about the starting position and the end position, and you might see that you are expecting your baby to sleep through a huge sensory shift. If they often wake up as you put the down think about transitioning through those positions slowly in arms.

First lean forwards a bit, still holding them to your chest, so that their weight begins to go through their back. Gradually bring their legs up, and turn them, moving into more of a cradle hold, still held close to you. As you put them down try to maintain the contact with your body until they are lying on the surface, then remove your arms, and finally lift your body away from theirs when they seem calm. This sounds complicated, so we have a video coming that shows you what we mean.

Parent sleep and vestibular input

So, this is harder to use for adults. Ever got sleepy whilst driving, you know like in those adverts for taking a break? What about falling asleep on a train or bus? Dozing in a hammock? That’s vestibular sensory stimulation helping you fall asleep.

If you get motion sick you may find the idea that these kind of movements are calming bizarre. You may need less vestibular input to go to sleep. However, for many adults motion is still very soothing.

Sensory tools for baby sleep: round up

So, this article will have provided you with some ideas for sensory tools you can use for baby sleep. There are lots more though. Some families put the Moses basket by the washing machine at nap time: that vibrates the floor (vestibular) and provides background noise (hearing).

Remember, this is things to think about article, not a checklist. There are lots of things in here that may help your baby settle to sleep, or wake less frequently, but they have to be workable for you and your family, in your sleep set up with your sensory preferences. So in the super short summary for troubleshooting baby (and adult) sleep using sensory tools:

  1. Are your baby’s basic needs met before sleep? (Interoceptive regulation)
  2. Have you created a calming sensory sleep environment for your baby? (the 5 environmental senses)
  3. Have you tried offer physical containment, or unrestricted movement in accordance with their preferences? (Proprioception)
  4. What about movement, or a change of position? (Vestibular)

Need more help?

Contact a CalmFamily consultant if you need more help with sleep.

Passionate about supporting parents?

If you want to support parents, offering evidence based information so they can make the right choices for their own family, then train with us. Become a CalmFamily consultant. Find out more about our training programmes.

Want to support parents with sleep?

If you are passionate about supporting parents with the reality of parenting, love sharing evidence backed information about the reality of sleep, and want to support parents to find ways to meet their own and their baby/child’s sleep needs then training with CalmFamily as a sleep specialist may be right up your street!
Find out more about training to offer SleepCalm today.

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