If your baby isn’t sleeping well, you are in good company – more than 50% of babies have sleep problems in the first three years of life. Sleep is definitely the most complex of all infant behaviour so it’s no wonder it’s the one that provides the greatest challenge in the early years.

As a new parent in a sleep-deprived state, you will probably be looking at teething, illness, hunger and separation anxiety as causes for the disrupted nights. And this would be sensible. However, before thinking about sleep training your little one, it is really worth looking at simple sensory issues too. Here are 5 simple sensory strategies you should consider to help your baby sleep well:

Melatonin and light – Deep in our brains is a tiny gland, called the Pineal gland that controls the release of our sleep hormone- Melatonin. When released, Melatonin induces sleep and so is a very useful tool in preventing bedtime battles. Melatonin is released in response to a sensory trigger in the visual system, namely the absence of light. So how can you use sensory input to activate the release of Melatonin?

  • Dark room – put block out lining on the window blinds
  • Dim lights – put a light dimmer on the light switch in your baby’s room for night feeds – this ensures the melatonin release is not disrupted
  • No TV or blue lights from tablets before bedtime as this disrupts the release of Melatonin
  • No night-light for babies under 18 months of age – they don’t have fears or nightmares when so little so don’t need a night light.

Movement and sleep – Our vestibular system registers head movement and our muscles and joints register muscle movement. Both forms of sensory input are associated with improved sleep, this is the reason why babies in utero sleep better during the day – due to the lulling movement of the mom’s body and why we all sleep better after an active hike or a day of activity. With this in mind, make sure your baby gets enough movement during the day to sleep well at night:

  • Limit sedentary activities like TV watching
  • Ensure at least 10 minutes of strong vestibular input in the late afternoon, such as a swing, walk in the pram / stroller or being carried in a sling
  • Provide opportunities for active exploration of the world in a play park or garden each day.

Sensory comfort objects – We have more touch receptors around our mouth than anywhere else on our bodies and we use these touch receptors to self-sooth. Provide opportunities for your baby to self-sooth with touch:

  • Dummies/pacifiers are wonderful – preferably stick with orthodontic teats
  • A doodoo comfort object such as a satin eared bunny or a soft teddy has wonderful touch elements for soothing.

Bedtime sensory strategies – A bedtime routine with predictable soothing sensory experiences is one of the best ways to encourage your little one to settle to sleep without a fight.

  • One hour before bed, start with a warm bath
  • Use scented bath products, such as lavender and chamomile oils and washes
  • Warm your little one’s towel so that the change in temperature doesn’t alert her
  • A gentle soothing massage is a key part of a good bedtime routine
  • Play soft music and lullabies in the nursery just before bed.

Sensory input that decreases state – The aim for your little one to not wake at night is reasonable if she is old enough to go without a feed and if she is comfortable. If you have ticked these boxes, you can use soothing sensory input to keep her in a deeper state of sleep:

  • White noise played at 50 decibels or lower blocks out other sound and keeps babies (and adults) asleep
  • Deep pressure of a mom’s hand or a weighted blanket helps little ones to sleep better. Only use a weighted blanket under supervision of an OT and if your baby is sleeping on her back
  • Vibration can help little ones to sleep better – use a cot vibrator to enhance sleep.