Sleep in our household

A little background information

This is Amber she is four years old and has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) with traits of ADHD and Autism. Amber has a younger sister Maisie who is 17 months old and lives with Mummy – Nicki and Daddy – Paul in a village in Worcestershire.

Always tired

Amber is a lively little girl who’s always on the go; she finds it difficult to control her emotions and frustration. She requires calm places if it all gets too much at home. Amber is a ‘sensory seeker’ and therefore will thrive on all sensory experiences, the messier the better! Family Fund provided Amber with a grant for Sensory toys and equipment from Learning SPACE and sessions at a local multi-sensory centre called SMILE (Sensation Movement Interaction in Life Experiences) at ARCOS (Association for Rehabilitation of Communication and Oral skills) in Malvern, Worcestershire. We have noticed a marked improvement in Amber’s ability to cope with sensory overload, frustration and anger and will use the toys and equipment in her calm place.

Our experiences of bedtime and sleep

From six months old Amber slept through the night from 7pm until 7am, we couldn’t believe we could be this lucky after talking to other families that experience sleep deprivation. There had only been a few occasions where Amber had woken in the night and these occasions were usually down to a bad dream or an allergic reaction as Amber is intolerant to dairy and egg. 

This was the case until only a few months ago, when Amber started refusing to go to bed and would do anything she could to gain our attention and prevent herself from settling and getting to sleep. We have put this sudden change in routine and her being unsettled down to being aware that there’s a change coming from ending pre-school to starting ‘big school’ this September. As a family we’ve found the last month extremely challenging because some nights Amber won’t settle and get to sleep until 9pm and no matter what time she goes up bed she wakes up at 5am regardless, in an extremely spritely manner! Sometimes she’ll wake up at 3am and refuse to go back to sleep and we have to bring her downstairs as she’ll make noise to wake her sister or our neighbours. This is why Amber cannot yet share a bedroom with her younger sister, as Maisie would be woken frequently. We as a family we are all affected by such early starts, especially Amber’s daddy who works full time. It makes for a very long day and it often feels like it’s the afternoon and we’re still only at 10am! From around 4pm each day Amber will start to get tired, from this time until bedtime it’s a tricky time, it’s a battle to get the routines of meal, bath and bed into place when Amber is so tired.

Tried and tested bedtime routines:

Always tired

● Reward charts and stickers – this is the first method that we tried with advice from our local children’s centre we used a visual sheet with pictures of getting pyjamas on, brushing teeth, getting into bed and then saying good night. A sticker was awarded for each stage that was completed. This worked for quite a while but Amber lost interest and stickers didn’t motivate her as much as when we started. She started to run around to avoid getting ready for bed. 

Always tired

● Lights on, lights off – Amber dislikes the dark so we’ve gone from keeping the main light on for her, to then using a lamp. She struggles more in the summer months saying “but it’s not bedtime, it’s sunny!” We now use a black out blind. Amber responded so well to the addition of a colour-changing bubble tube that projected on the walls and ceiling and also a ‘rainbow in my room’ projector. Due to recent meltdowns, these have been relocated to Amber’s ‘calm zone’ under the stairs as we couldn’t risk these items being broken. Bubble tube and Rainbow projector both from Learning SPACE through a Family Fund grant.

Always tired

● Classical music – we tried using a CD player with a classical music CD and also lullabies from a phone App called ‘Sleepy Sounds,’ again this worked for a time to sleep better and Amber will decide on the night if she wants the CD player or not. 

Always tired

● Less distractions – we’ve had to simplify the layout of Amber’s bedroom as it was filled with toys, we felt she may be over-stimulated at bedtime, she now has her bed, a chest of drawers and a tent, including some soft toys. Amber gets frustrated and throws any item she can get her hands on, so now she only has access to soft toys at bedtime. 

● Extra tall stair gate – I felt really bad when having to install a tall stair gate, I didn’t want Amber to feel ‘caged in,’ but for the time being this is essential to ensure Amber is safe. She was able to run around freely upstairs and would also wake her sister up, and I’d find her inside the cot, she was also able to access our landing and I was worried she would climb the normal sized safety gate and hurt herself. We’ve had to secure this to the wall as she was able to pull the pressure fittings straight off the wall! She really is very strong! We’ve also had to remove her door from the room as she was banging it against the wall in process and made a hole in the wall! 

● Being brave enough to leave - This has been my biggest hurdle, I hate it when my children are upset, but after advice I received we had to make a choice whether to commit to continually having to go back upstairs to settle Amber or whether to leave her and allow her to settle naturally. What we’ve found is no matter how difficult it is, and when it pulls at your heart strings, it is working for us to allow Amber to settle herself, we have spoken to our neighbour to explain and they are understanding of the situation. Amber will call “mummy” or “daddy” for a drink, to go to the toilet, for a story – even though she’s had her specified one or two stories, for a cuddle, etc. – any method to get us to return to her. She is now learning that once we’ve said goodnight then she should try to relax and settle. 

Always tired

● Being clear on how many stories/songs - I took the advice of our local children’s centre here again, and we have a set rule that if Amber has got dressed for bed without any problems then she will have two stories, if there’s been some tricky behaviour then she will have one story. I recognise the importance of reading at bedtime and this rule ensures that Amber always gets at least one story per night. Some nights this routine works better than others, if she’s really tired she will fall asleep whilst I’m reading or singing songs from her favourite nursery rhyme book. But if Amber isn’t very tired we can get protests for more stories or songs, I did start to sing Amber to sleep but it only worked a few times and I was spending a great deal of time in her room in the evenings. Amber has fallen asleep reading to herself!

Always tired

● Benefits of spending time outdoors – on the days that Amber has spent a lot of time outdoors, particularly if we’ve been out for the day, we find that the fresh air does make her more tired at the end of the day, especially if she’s been running around all day and has burnt lots of energy! We recognise the importance of having time to ourselves as parents because our days are very full-on, it’s so beneficial to wind down during the evenings.

I’m unsure how long the unsettled bedtimes will carry on for, but it’s highly important that both myself and Amber’s father work as a team and support each other throughout the routine. We hope that the unsettled bedtimes will reduce once Amber is familiar with her new school routine. Only time will tell.

Read more of Nicki's blogs at Sensory Sensitive Mummy or on the Family Fund website