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Sensory processing: its development at different stages and how to use this to help baby sleep!



In the Baby-Led Sleep Certification program, one of the topics we learnt about was sensory processing as Baby-Led Sleep is a holistic approach and we were trained to examine how various factors can impact your child’s sleep. In this blog post, I will share with you what is meant by “sensory processing”, how it develops at different stages and how you can use this information to help your child sleep.


First off, what exactly is sensory processing? Essentially, it is the way in which the body receives, interprets and responds to signals from its environment. One example is when you put your hand on a hot stove, the nerves in your fingers send a signal to your brain to remove your hand.

So, how exactly does this ability to respond to one's environment develop and how we can use this information to help our child sleep? Read on to find out!


A. Sensory development from newborn to 4 months

At birth, how do babies respond to their environment? Babies are born with reflexes that occur automatically such as sucking, grasping, staring, and listening. For example, if you put your finger in their mouth, they will automatically suck on it without conscious effort. Another important example is the Moro reflex which is an automatic response to a sudden noise or movement, causing their arms, hands and neck to extend backward and then recoil. It peaks during the first month and typically starts to disappear around 4 months.


Based on this information about newborns’ sensory processing, how can we support their sleep? When putting baby down in crib or bassinet, try to put them down bum first then head since putting their head down first elicits the Moro reflex which would cause them to awaken. While baby is sleeping, try to avoid sudden movements, drops or noises which would also elicit the Moro reflex. For example, you could use a white noise machine to cover up sudden noises that could trigger the Moro reflex. Side note on all this, is that it is normal for babies to wake up often and it is a survival response so yes, while we can do things to not trigger this reflex as often, it is perfectly normal for baby to awaken throughout the night.


While babies do have automatic responses as we just discussed, babies do also start to develop conscious responses to their environment. For example, perhaps they make a gurgling noise which they enjoy hearing and so they continue to do this again to entertain themselves! Another example is they start to learn what helps them calm down their nervous system such as breastfeeding or sucking on a pacifier, which is why they may enjoy having these at sleep times to help them fall asleep. (This is referred to as self-regulation, not self-soothing. If baby is in heightened state of stress, they are not able to calm themselves down without help of a caregiver) The first stage of this development of their conscious response to their environment relates primarily to controlling their own body.


Based on this information, how can we help support babies’ sleep at this stage?

We can try to tune into what baby finds soothing and make use of this at sleep time. For example, sucking is typically an action most babies find soothing so we could ensure their hands are free to allow them to suck on fingers, or use bottle/breastfeeding at sleep times or a pacifier. (Whatever works best for you and baby!) Another aspect to tune is to is which kind of movements help soothe baby to go to sleep. Typically, repetitive, rhythmic movements help provide calming vestibular input to babies’ nervous system. For example, bouncing them on an exercise ball, using a rocking chair, swaying in arms, are all great ways of helping them calm down to go to sleep. It is completely normal that babies require parental assistance to go to sleep so do not worry about setting up bad habits. One suggestion I would make is to try to incorporate as many sleep associations as you can at this stage so then if you want to make a change later, baby has multiple ways of going to sleep instead of just being to used to one way.


B. Sensory development from 4 to 8 months

The next stage involves infant’s responses to objects and people and typically occurs between 4 through 8 months of age. At this stage, baby is becoming more aware of the outside world and really begins to interact more with people and objects around them! This is an amazing stage for parents as it is almost like all that hard work in the first 3 months has paid off and now, they can really begin to develop a relationship with their child. In terms of sleep, however, it can become somewhat more challenging, as baby is now potentially wanting to stay awake and play instead of going to sleep! (Which when you think about it from their perspective, make total sense!)


So, how can we support baby’s sleep at this stage? Since as I just mentioned above, baby is becoming much more aware of their environment, you may need to do even more to reduce stimulation around sleep times. For example, dimming the lights in the bedroom before you enter to do your sleep routines is a good way to signal to baby it is time to sleep. Other ways to set the stage for sleep are to decrease stimulation even before nap or bedtime routine begins by reducing use of toys with bright lights or noise, dimming lights in play areas before bed and having quiet music playing in the background. Once again, it really depends on your child and their sensory needs but these are just some general strategies you could try.


C. Sensory Development from 8 to 12 months

The next stage in their nervous system development occurs between 8 and 12 months. At this stage, infants become more aware of how their actions elicit responses in people and objects and become more adept at communicating their needs. Also, around 8 months, is when babies being to develop object permanence, which is the ability to understand that objects and people still exist even when out of sight.


So with this understanding in mind, how can we apply this to supporting our baby’s sleep at this stage? Now that your baby is developing a better ability to communicate their needs, it is becoming easier to understand their likes and dislikes, which we can take into consideration when it comes to their nap and bedtime routines. For example, maybe baby is no longer enjoying being bounced to sleep, so we could change up our routine and try to incorporate a different strategy to help ease them into sleep. In terms of the development of separation anxiety, this is where we may see more of baby not wanting to go to sleep as they are becoming more aware that this represents a separation from you, their primary caregiver. To help them understand that even when you leave, you will still return, you can play games with them during the day such as peekaboo and leave-and-return, which is when you leave the room for a moment and return with a happy expression.


D. Sensory Development from 12 to 18 months

The next stage in their development occurs from age of 12 to 18 months. At this stage, the concept of cause and effect is becoming more strongly developed and so this is a stage where you may start to see more testing of limits occurring, particularly around sleep times.


How do we apply this knowledge to supporting our toddler’s sleep? If you don’t already, this is definitely a good time to make sure you have a solid and consistent nap and bedtime routine in place in order to provide predictability for toddler and show them you are taking the lead at a time where they may be testing limits. One other suggestion is if you are dealing with a lot of bedtime battles where toddler keeps asking for more things (ex. a cup of water, one more book, etc.), you could make a list of everything they ask for and then create a bedtime routine list chart or poster that you will follow each night. This helps show them you are taking their needs into consideration and also should help reduce them trying to prolong bedtime.


Hopefully you found this information and the related tips helpful! I will continue to delve more into this topic in my next post where I will go into more specifics about the different sensory systems as well as how to tell if your child is under vs. overstimulated to help best support their sleep.


Sources:

Baby-Led Sleep Certification (Sleep Coach Certification - Isla-Grace (islagrace.ca))

Lumen LifeSpan Development: Cognitive Development in Infant and Toddlers (https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wmopen-lifespandevelopment/chapter/cognitive-development-in-infants-and-toddlers/)


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