Keeping Me Well - Cardiff and Vale University Hospital

Helping my child settle down to sleep at night

Why do we need sleep?

Sleep is essential to ensure we are healthy and ready to engage in what life has to offer.

Going to sleep and getting enough sleep are important skills for children to learn.  

Child sleeping

Sleep helps to ensure that children are able to play and are ready to participate in day-to-day activities at school or at home and it promotes growth and development. Understanding the basics about sleep can help you think about why your child may be having sleep difficulties. When your child has a sleep difficulty it can be tempting to compare their sleep with that of other children. Remember that all children are individuals and making comparisons is not helpful.

If your child is not sleeping you may feel as if you are failing but remember – all parents go through difficulties establishing good sleeping habits with their children. A poor night’s sleep can interfere with a child’s performance and behaviour the following day.

What to avoid?

TVs and screens give out a blue artificial light which stops the brain from producing its ‘sleepy hormone’ (melatonin) and this interferes with sleep.

  • Try to keep your child’s bedroom a TV / mobile phone / iPad free zone.
  • However if this is not possible, ensure they are switched off.
  • Try to charge devices in another room. 

De-clutter your child’s bedroom before sleep e.g.,

  • picking up toys
  • removing rubbish
  • picking up clothes off the floor

What to encourage?

Children tend to thrive on routines. Try to keep regular times for going to bed and getting up. Winding down is a very important stage in preparing your child for bed. Good habits for getting to sleep will help to manage night time waking. Be aware of how your child gets to sleep as this indicates their ability to self soothe. If you have to attend to your child waking then limit stimuli as much as you can; use dim lights and quiet sounds.

An example of a good bedtime routine could be: 

  • Quiet play e.g. colouring, jigsaws, board game, cards 
  • Last snack/ drink 
  • Warm bath (not hot) to relax
  • Put pyjamas on 
  • Brush teeth
  • Go to the toilet
  • Cuddle/story/song or if child is older give them time to read or listen to relaxing music.
  • Use a regular phrase to end the routine e.g. ‘Good night’, ‘have a good sleep’.

Sensory Calming Techniques for Young People

We recommend you firstly watch our video workshop on ‘How Children Use Their Senses To Regulate For Learning And Play’ to give more information on sensory play.

Here are some activities ideas to help provide sensory calming input to our bodies:

Proprioception is our sense of where our body is in space and in relation to the world around us. We get proprioceptive information through our muscles and joints when we do activities that involve pushing, pulling, lifting or resisting.

Proprioceptive input has a calming effect on our bodies. Here are some examples of proprioceptive activities:

  • Using a static bike or rowing machine
  • Throwing a ball at a target or through a hoop
  • Wall push ups (push on wall with both hands as if to push the wall away)
  • Chair push ups (place hands on the side of seat and lift self away from the seat)
  • Hitting a punch bag
  • Simple yoga, Pilates or martial art videos online
  • Monkey bars or hanging from a push up bar
  • Carry the full laundry basket downstairs
  • Making the bed
  • Tear up/squash recycling

Closely linked with proprioception is deep touch input which also helps calm our systems down. This is different from light tickly touch which can be alerting and uncomfortable for some young people.

Some ideas for how to deliver deep touch include: 

  • Sensory compression bedsheet
  • Wearing lycra clothing under everyday clothes 
  • Hand or foot massage
  • Big bear hugs from a trusted adult
  • Using a massage roller

Vestibular is our sense of movement.

There are two types of movement:

  • linear, which is calming 
  • rotational, which is alerting.

Generally you want slow rhythmical linear movement for calming.

  • Go on a swing
  • Sit in a rocking chair
  • Lie in a hammock 
  • Rocking gently on a gym ball

Chewing, sucking and blowing can also have a calming effect on the body.

  • Chewing gum or chewy sweets
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Drinking from a sports bottle
  • Drink a smoothie through a straw

Creation of a space to retreat to when a situation becomes too difficult and the young person needs to reduce the environmental demands. The space should contain items that help them calm and regulate.

Here are some suggestions but keep in mind the young person’s likes and dislikes and whenever possible create the space with them. The space itself can be created using a pop up tent, using room dividers or just a corner of a room. Only provide objects that the young person is safe to access without close supervision.

Items that might go inside your retreat space include:

  • A bean bag chair 
  • Stress ball
  • Headphones with music or white noise 
  • Eye mask 
  • Fibre optic lights 
  • Small ball to bounce 
  • Heavy blanket
  • Soft blanket 
  • Favourite soft toy 
  • Hand massager
  • Chewing gum
  • Ear plugs
  • Lava lamp
  • Sensory bottle/mindful jar (have a look on sites such as Pinterest) 
  • Fidget toy

Depending on the young person’s level of understanding and their ability to follow instructions these activities may also be helpful. Note most of these activities will need to be practiced first at a time when the young person is calm and receptive.

The following are some general ideas. Whether these are calming or not for the child will depend on the young person’s preferences.

  • Cooking or baking 
  • Take a bath or shower
  • Drink a glass of cold water or juice
  • Drink a hot drink 
  • Place a cold gel pack on forehead or back of the neck
  • Place a warm wheat pack in lap or across shoulders

Diaphragmatic or ‘belly’ breathing

  1. Lie on the floor or sit up straight with your feet supported
  2. Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly
  3. Breath out all your air, until your belly pulls in slightly 
  4. Imagine you have a balloon underneath your belly button that inflates as you breath in and deflates as you breath out
  5. Breathe in through your nose and fill your lungs as much as you can. Feel your belly expand, like a balloon blowing up
  6. Breathe out slowly through your mouth. Feel your belly go back in, like a balloon deflating. Say “haa” as you breathe out
  7. Breathe in slowly through your nose while counting to 3
  8. Breathe out slowly through your mouth while counting to 6
  9. Repeat steps 7 and 8 until you feel relaxed
  10. Keep your shoulders as relaxed as possible; they should not rise as you breathe in

It’s important that a child practices this when they are in a relaxed state. Once they have got the hang of it they can use it when they are stressed. It can be helpful to practice this at bedtime for children who have trouble falling asleep. 

Lazy 8 breathing

Start with an 8 on its side. Starting in the middle, go up to the left and trace the left part of the 8 with your finger while you breathe in. When you get to the middle of the 8 again, breathe out while you trace the right part of the 8 with your finger. 

A sideways 8 with 'start here' in the middle. Arrows go around the 8 showing to breathe out around one circle and breathe in around the other circle

Keeping Me Well - Cardiff and Vale University Hospital

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