Create Sensory-Friendly Sleep for Your Child

For many parents, managing their child’s bedtime is a difficult and exhausting process. Oftentimes, children are hesitant to go to bed or have difficulties falling and staying asleep. However, for a child with sensory sensitivities, these challenges may be extreme. As a result, your child is likely overtired and experiencing difficulty in regular activities at home and at school. Additionally, poor sleep in one member of the family often affects the whole family, including parents. If your family is experiencing similar sleep issues, sensory-friendly sleep may be the solution for you!

Why is sleep so important?

Firstly, it is important to understand why sleep is so important for your family. Did you know that sleep is essential to your child’s development? Specifically, sleep patterns significantly impact a child’s memory, emotional regulation, attention, behaviour as well as their mental and physical well-being. Therefore, if your child is not getting a sufficient night’s rest, their development will be affected. For example, you may notice your child becomes easily upset or has a difficult time focusing at school.

Sleep is essential to gain the energy needed to participate in the rest of your daily life. Good sleep improves your quality of life. Poor sleep disrupts your quality of life.. Therefore, good sleep is important for your child, for yourself and for your whole family.

How are sensory sensitivities related to sleep?

You are likely surprise to learn that sensory sensitivities and sleep disturbances are related. According to a research titled, “Tactile Processing and Quality of Sleep in Autism Spectrum Disorders” by Jamiol-Milc et al., (2021), sleep disorders are one of the most common psychiatric comorbidities in neurodevelopmental disorders, including ASDs, ADHD, and Down syndrome1.  These higher levels of brain arousal cause people to have a harder time being able to slow their thought processes, ignore what is unimportant, and calm their senses. Ultimately, this results in both greater trouble falling and staying asleep.

How do you create sensory-friendly sleep?

Sensory-friendly sleep involves creating a sleeping environment and experience that is calming and relaxing for the senses. There are many different ways that you can create sensory-friendly sleep. Below are some common and effective strategies to help establish a sensory-friendly sleep.

Infographic highlighting 6 ways to have sensory-friendly sleep.

Reduce screen time before bed

A common strategy that you are likely aware of is reducing screen time before going to bed. Research has found that using screens before bedtime, for example, a smartphone, TV or tablet, can lead to a 20-45 minutes shorter duration of sleep. The most problematic aspect of screen time before bed is the light that stimulates the brain. Therefore, it is ideal to try to reduce, limit and restrict screen time as much as possible in the few hours before going to bed.

However, it is not always easy to reduce screen time! A lot of children rely on their electronics. Therefore, consider gradually decreasing screen time before bed. For example, start by minimizing use of electronics even 20 minutes before bed. Then, continue to slowly increase this amount of time, in intervals of a few minutes. Additionally, consider using the “night mode” features on many devices. This helps to change the lighting on your devices to create a more calming and relaxing response. However, night mode is not an equal substitute for reducing screen time before bed. A period of no screens is best!

Create a bedtime routine

Another important aspect of creating sensory-friendly sleep is to establish a consistent bedtime routine. A bedtime routine involves specific activities before bed, usually in a consistent order, as well as going to bed at a consistent time. For example, this typically involves getting into pajamas, washing your face and brushing your teeth, going to the toilet, reading a book in bed and going to sleep at the same time each night.

Although you may not think that this developing a bedtime routine is important, it is actually one of the most effective strategies for good sleep. A routine allows your mind and body to recognize the signs of winding down and relaxing before falling asleep.

Create a consistent wake time

Furthermore, similar to establishing a bedtime routine and going to bed at the same time each night, having a consistent wake schedule is also important. Many children become accustomed to waking up early on weekdays and sleeping in on weekends. However, waking up at an inconsistent time can disrupt your overall sleep. While you might feel more awake in the morning after sleeping in, it may make it even harder to fall asleep at night time. Therefore, it is beneficial to set get in the habit of getting up and going to bed at roughly the same time every day.

Use relaxation or meditation techniques

Additionally, another effective strategy to establish sensory-friendly sleep is teaching your child to use relaxation or meditation techniques before bed. Using mindfulness strategies before bed helps to relax and calm the mind and nervous system, which is needed to be able to fall asleep. These techniques help people of all ages become in tune with their bodies and feel more in control of their breathing techniques.

However, some children and adults may find it difficult to practice these strategies. Luckily, there are so many guided free meditation applications that you can choose from. For example, “Calm” and “Head Space” are two amazing user-friendly mediation apps that you and your child can do together.

Young person sleeping in bed in dark room.

Create a relaxing sleeping environment

Furthermore, another important component of creating sensory-friendly sleep is through creating a relaxing sleeping environment. This can be done in a variety of ways and is dependent on your sensory preferences. Additionally, this can involve using a variety of sleeping assistive devices. However, common strategies to help make your sleeping environment more sensory-friendly includes using:

  • Black-out curtains
  • A cool environment
  • Comfortable pillows and mattress
  • Quiet room
  • Calming and relaxed scents
  • White noise machines
  • Weighted blankets

Establish a positive mindset about sleep

Lastly, an important part of sleep is creating a positive mindset around it. If your child struggles to fall or stay asleep, it is easy for them to begin to develop a more negative mindset around bedtime. Additionally, if they become dependent on a parent to support them when falling asleep or staying asleep, this can become extremely disruptive to the family.

To help resolve this, try to establish a positive mindset about going to bed. This involves changing the language you use about bedtime, developing a consistent and effective nighttime routine and increasing their independence around sleep. Although this is not an easy process, creating a positive around bedtime is vital to establish sensory-friendly sleep. Big Life Journal has a blog post highlighting 5 tips to help create a positive bedtime routine with your child. Within this blog post, they provide different prompts to help develop a positive mindset surrounding sleep.

Sensory-friendly sleep will be beneficial for your child’s and family’s physical and mental well-being. Consider implementing some of these suggestions to help create a more sensory-friendly sleep routine!

Interested in learning more? Check out:

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  1. Jamioł-Milc, D., Bloch, M., Liput, M., Stachowska, L., & Skonieczna-Żydecka, K. (2021). Tactile Processing and Quality of Sleep in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Brain Sciences, 11(3), 362.
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