Night Parenting with Sensory Processing Disorder

I knew long before my daughter was born that we would cosleep. We never bought a crib or even a cosleeper; instead, we bought a larger mattress and got rid of our bed frame. After she was born (in water, at home), the midwife swaddled her and placed her in bed beside me, and from that moment I couldn’t imagine her sleeping anywhere else.

But I didn’t know that she would continue to wake constantly through the night — sometimes as often as every 45 minutes–long past the newborn stage. I didn’t know that she would give up naps at 18 months and still go to bed late and wake frequently at night. I didn’t know that by her second birthday, when even our cosleeping and breastfeeding friends were beginning to enjoy uninterrupted nights of sleep, she would still be waking every two or three hours to nurse.

Around her second birthday, I decided it was time to night wean. She was verbal, attached, and confident. Surely she was ready. I planned to use a modified version of Jay Gordon’s method in which we would only drop one night feeding at a time instead of dropping them all at once. The first night, I nursed her to sleep, but when she woke, I didn’t nurse her. She screamed and cried for a long time as I held her and comforted her, but eventually she fell asleep without it. The next time she woke, and for the rest of the night, I nursed her as usual, and she fell back asleep easily. After a few nights of that, she started sleeping four hours instead of two after she first fell asleep. Then I moved to the next feeding.

Every night I would skip nursing the first time she woke up and insist that she fall asleep again without nursing–but only for that first waking. Over a period of weeks, the first waking moved later and later, and I felt encouraged. I was tired — every night I was awake for an hour or more trying to soothe her as she cried–but it was working! She was sleeping for longer stretches.

Then we hit the 3 am waking. And instead of crying and protesting and finally going back to sleep, she just cried. And cried. And then eventually lay still and tried to go to sleep. And cried more. For hours. Until it was morning, and I finally nursed her as the sun rose because I had promised all night that she could nurse when morning came. And then, exhausted, she and I both finally fell asleep.

Then the longer stretches of sleep that I’d fought so hard to gain grew short again. Soon she was going to bed at 8, waking at 10 or 11, and staying up all night. Until 6 am, when I would finally nurse her. For months we continued the attempt to night wean, my husband and I taking turns with occasional “okay” nights–when she would go back to sleep after an hour or so–and frequent horrible nights when she would stay awake all night long. All of us were miserable.

After about nine months, we went on vacation. Unwilling to let my daughter stay awake screaming all night at my in-laws’ house, I gave up and began nursing her at night again. And to my relief, she slept. Mostly. I realized then that waking to breastfeed was infinitely better than just staying awake–for both of us–and I gave up on night weaning and went back to our former schedule. For the most part, she did too. But once or twice a month, she would wake and simply stay awake. All night.

By her third birthday, her sleep was worse than it had been a year before: she was irregular and unpredictable, rarely sleeping for longer than three hours at a time and often staying awake all night.

Finally, I decided to look into medical causes. I reluctantly admitted the truth to our pediatrician, who, to my relief, suggested not sleep training but a neurotransmitter test. The results showed hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances that did indeed contribute to lack of sleep. Further investigation concluded with a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder, an oversensitivity to sensory input that means my daughter has lived most of her life in constant arousal, her system always poised for fight-or-flight.

No wonder she has trouble sleeping.

Now, just a few short months later, a combination of supplements and occupational therapy has made a world of difference. She averages ten hours of sleep a night — probably not as much as she needs, but far more than she was getting. The nights when she sleeps straight through are gradually starting to outnumber the nights when she wakes. It’s been months since she last stayed awake for hours in the middle of the night. Best of all, she’s becoming a different child: more relaxed, more adaptable, happier. She even sleeps in her own room–and loves it.

There have been many times over the past three years when I’ve been advised to sleep train. “Just let her cry for a few nights and then she’ll sleep,” people would tell me. I always brushed them off, insisting that her sleep wasn’t a serious problem, that we was managing fine. Sometimes that was true. Sometimes I was lying.

But I never really considered sleep training. Even when I began to realize that her sleep patterns were not normal, I was sure that letting her cry was not the answer. All those nights of trying to night wean, it became clear to me that she was trying to sleep — she wanted to sleep — but she couldn’t. Something more than mere habit was waking her. Something bigger than either she or I could control.

It turned out I was right. My daughter’s sensory defensiveness means that her brain doesn’t regulate the way it should. The amazing ability of babies to “self-soothe,” so touted by sleep trainers, is missing from her system. It’s not that she won’t, or that she hasn’t learned; she truly can’t. Her ability to regulate herself is broken, and even when she seems to calm, her stress levels never go back down. With time, practice, and therapy, she will learn these skills, but it will always be harder for her than it is for typical kids.

What if I had tried to train her? What if I’d let her cry it out, left her alone to learn to sleep on her own? My husband asked our occupational therapist (a strong proponent of sleep training, who used the Ferber method with her own kids) if our daughter would have slept better if we’d tried those methods earlier.

“No,” she said. “Your job a parent is to help your child regulate, and your daughter really is incapable of self-regulation. If you hadn’t had the inner resources that you did, to keep helping her and breastfeeding as long as you have, then maybe you would have looked for outside help earlier–but maybe not. But it wouldn’t have worked. She couldn’t have learned these skills by herself. You didn’t have a choice but to parent the way you did.”

I didn’t have a choice about nighttime parenting my child? Then I guess it’s a good thing I made that choice anyway. And despite the many sleepless nights, if I could go back now and reconsider that choice, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Lisa C. Baker is a full-time mom and part-time writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about parenting and environmental topics for various print and online venues. She blogs at Organic Baby Atlanta.

18 Responses to Night Parenting with Sensory Processing Disorder

  1. Nick  

    Courageous mom!

  2. melissa  

    Thank you so much for this! I have two sensory children and one sleeps well now that she is 6 but the other is 22 mo and stills struggles to sleep. CIO would not have worked on either child and now that we know what is going on with both kids we are able to address their needs as best we can and still gently parent. There is nothing wrong with going with the flow especially when you have sensory issues in the house!

  3. Brandi Elam  

    I never knew something like this existed! I’d love to hear more about this. Did your daughter have any symptoms that manifested during the day?

    • Lisa @ Organic Baby Atlanta  

      Brandi, yes. Mostly it was just difficulty self-soothing. And, well, difficulty in general. The thing that motivated me to seek diagnosis was an incident with the child of a friend of mine (who happens to be a therapist). My friend noticed the way my daughter reacted to her son touching her (she freaked out), and suggested that I look into sensory processing. I started reading about it and felt like it really resonated with my daughter. Here’s the site where I started:

      I also wrote more about this topic on my blog today. 🙂

    • Farley

      Dear Brandymom,

      As a grandparent of a tactile defensive child, I can tell you, yes, there are many manifestations in the daylight. Meltdowns are the most common, I think. This is when the child, usually without any warning, just starts screaming. This can go on for hours and hours as sensory kids cannot calm themselves. Without some tool or method, the caretaker is really disadvantaged. I rocked my granddaughter. That helped so much. She seemed to need a distraction from her own terror. Weird, but true. Her mom would breastfeed her – it worked like a charm. Now that she’s older, she asks for a story to help her calm down.

      Another thing that seemed strange is that she would become very defensive around other kids – even attacking them if they got too close. This makes socialization really challenging. We taught her alternative ways to handle her fearfulness of their closeness and occupational therapy has helped reduce her instantly fearful reactions to other people. Another thing that used to bother her and even could cause a meltdown was just too many people in the room. Four was ok, five was too many, especially if they were not still.

      Strangers were also a problem. People she knew and was familiar with were ok, but new people heightened her alarms. We tried not to let any strangers touch her – that is a trigger for a sensory defensive kid. She is so pretty, strangers are tempted, but a strong “stand off” look usually prevents them from approaching her. She might sock them!

      She has come so far in her ability to tolerate others now, however, that she loves school and wants to go there even on weekends. She is delighted with BIG birthday parties with lots and lots of kids in motion, too. So I guess it’s all working.

  4. Hannah  

    Thanks for your posting about nights with SPD. I don’t feel that CIO would work with our son and I am glad to know that it isn’t a “fix all” like some people advocate.

  5. Katy Wolfer  

    I recently learned about SPD from a friend whose child was recently diagnosed. I had not considered the night time aspect, and that it might interfere with sleep. Thank you for writing this article.

  6. Laura R

    Thank you so much for this…after 2 years of family and friends insisting I was crazy and my son was a typical baby/toddler even though I was never sleeping and the constant screaming/difficult behaviors drained everything out of me, I finally got some answers through testing. After a couple months of seeing therapists, my son is slightly better, but we’re really hoping an OT will make some major breakthroughs when he starts seeing her next month. While he’s doing more flavors of food and finally doing some pureed meat, he still won’t chew or eat textured foods, and still wants to constantly breastfeed. Even though he has a wide vocabulary (animals, numbers, letters, etc), he refuses to communicate basic needs like hunger, thirst, and goes into knock down tantrums where I get clawed, my hair pulled, etc. Two questions for you…what supplements helped? and did you have any strategies/tips or can you explain how you went about weaning during the day? if you have any other thoughts for me, I would really appreciate it! 🙂 Thanks again and God bless, Laura

  7. Anne

    Also,wondering what supplements worked for your lo. This is a mirror image of my 2 1/2 year old DD.

  8. Meredith

    I couldn’t have written our story ANY better! To a T. Although I must say I’m at the part where, because of family visiting I have in & am now nursing all night long again. I’m certain there’s some sensory processing issues going on & will be lolling into OT. It’s nice to hear of another Mama that listened to & stuck with her instincts. It’s often hard to ignore the “you should let her cry it out,” or, “you’re spoiling her.”

  9. Laura R

    For those asking which supplements as I am for my son, while we are still waiting for a response from the author, I did find some information regarding dramatic improvement for a child with autism (similar symptoms as SPD) by using probiotics. Jordan Rubin started Garden of Life and their product Primal Defense (they have kids versions and I just bought the raw probiotics kids version for my son so here’s praying!!!)…Jordan Rubin’s recovery from Chrons and other diseases is truly amazing. He started another company called Beyond Organic for his mission to make available to everyone the foods and drinks that helped him heal naturally (a great company, plus, all profits go to charity, but it is still very much a grass roots type movement). It has helped my family and my husband’s autoimmune disease immensely. I never feel better than when I have one Suero beverage per day, and for me, it works even better than GoL’s Primal Defense pills. ( However, we have not been able to use Beyond Organic with our son because of his dairy allergies and the fact he can’t chew yet…up until now we did not think of adding probiotics to his diet because we assumed he was getting them through my breast milk, but now that he’s weaned, it became a glaring deficiency. I’m hoping that once he learns to communicate better, we can get consistent chiropractic adjustments for him, do some gentle detox, and get whatever supplements he needs to give his body what it needs to do what it was designed to do and heal. Hope some of this info may help others and God bless all of us in our families’ health journeys!

  10. Lisa

    Author here! The supplement we used was magnesium and calcium. Natural calm from Whole Foods. They have a kid version that tastes a lot better than the adult version. You can also use Epsom salt baths, but baths were too hard for us.

  11. Laura R

    Oh, thank you thank you thank you, Lisa!!! 🙂 He’s getting whole food multi-vitamins and D drops now, but we felt we were still missing something. Yes, baths are hit or miss with us too, but most are a nightmare. All the best to you and your family, and thanks again so much for this article!

  12. Twilla

    Hi, Thank you so much for this article my son seems to have some sensory issues and I have tired night weaning where we are up most of the night he is 28mths old.

  13. Twilla

    Hi Where do I start to start weaning my son so then we can work on sleep

  14. Katie

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I am currently dealing with my son who has SPD (undiagnosed) and is still night nursing. He is a month shy of his 4th birthday and it’s killing me. I’m going to go into his peds office, equipped with this article and other info and hopefully get some answers. I really needed to see this!

  15. Laura N

    Very similar to my 34m old. I am grateful to have the support of hearing similar stories! 🙂

  16. Corry

    I decided to Google advice because we’ve hit a brick wall with our OT. Our 2 year old daughter is identical to yours but her OT is not treating her needs as much as she’s applying the treatments to her that most of her other patients need. She’s a bright child, very advanced developmentally, but comfort nurses frequently (day and night) and then isn’t hungry so she foregoes food. It is a vicious cycle. Reading your experience gives me hope that we are not alone in this journey. Thank you for sharing your insights!!