Understanding Sensory Dysregulation

Sensory dysregulation

A term you may have heard when it comes to sensory processing is sensory dysregulation. What does this mean? Are there clues for dysregulation? What are specific sensory strategies for regulation to support a dysregulated sensory system? We’ll cover all of this in this post.

Sensory dysregulation

Sensory Dysregulation

Remember your last temper tantrum? Do you remember what it felt like to be suddenly so sad, mad, and completely out of control? Most of us probably had our last true temper tantrum more recently than we care to admit.

A majority of those emotional outbursts were probably exacerbated due to a number of reasons; lack of sleep, poor diet, undesirable environment, discomfort, or pain. Deciphering the difference between a tantrum and sensory meltdown is a must.

One ongoing debate in the pediatric therapy world is discussing what behaviors are due to sensory-related reactions, and what behaviors are due to something else. How many toddlers (or teenagers!) temper tantrums may actually be related to their sensory experience? If it really is sensory-based, then what are the solutions?

The OT Toolbox is here to do our best to answer your sensory-related questions. A great first step in determining whether unwanted behaviors are based on sensory experiences, is to learn about what sensory dysregulation is. To get started, here is an article about sensory processing red flags.

what is sensory dysregulation

WHAT IS SENSORY DYSREGULATION?

Sensory dysregulation refers to a mind or body state which occurs when the body is out of balance due to experiences in the sensory environment. Think about how sounds, textures, exercise, movement, smells, light, and other input can affect your mood. Sensory dysregulation is the result of either too much or too little stimulation for best functioning or self-regulation.

It’s more than sensory touch and the input we receive through our skin. It’s the inability to regulate sensory input from ALL the sensory systems.

A key component outcome of sensory dysregulation is self-regulation. There are many ways to define self-regulation, but generally, it is one’s ability to remain at an acceptable level of emotion, energy, behavior, and attention – given the demands of their environment.

 In order to achieve self-regulation, one must also have good sensory regulation. 

Sensory dysregulation is something that anyone can experience, and most people probably have experienced a level of sensory dysregulation to some degree.

Everyone has sensory preferences, like how loud they listen to music, or if they enjoy lots of hugs. If your preference is to have less, your systems would become out of balance with the music too loud or people getting too touchy.

Each of us has our own limits given any situation – but once you are in tune with your body’s needs, you know when it has become too much. When the system is unbalanced, maladaptive behaviors (tantrums) occur, if no coping strategies are implemented. We covered this individualized preferences and nuances of neurodiversity in greater detail in our post on Sensory Diets for Adults.

People with sensory processing disorder, which is an issue on a larger scale that affects a much smaller portion of the population, feel dysregulated more often and have far less ability to self-regulate. While sensory processing disorders can exist in isolation, they may be most prevalent in those with Autism or ADHD

Check out our resources at the end of this article for great coping tools! 

WHAT DOES DYSREGULATION LOOK LIKE?

Sensory dysregulation, much like emotional dysregulation, feels uncontrollable. Something is “wrong” and a person may not know what is causing them to feel “off”, or how to solve the problem. Sensory dysregulation may look and feel similar to emotional or behavioral dysregulation, that can cause temper tantrums.

The main difference is that sensory experiences are the root cause of the behavioral responses – not social disagreements or the like. It is complicated to tease out whether the issue is behavior or sensory. Look first at the triggers.

A simpler way to understand of sensory dysregulation, is by breaking it down into two categories: over-responsiveness or under-responsiveness to the environmental stimuli. 

  • Over-responsiveness may look like: sensory avoidant behaviors such as excessive covering of the ears, hiding, avoiding touch, or extreme picky eating. The body may be responding too much to the incoming information. One reaction is to avoided it to, remain at baseline. 
  • Under-responsiveness may look like: sensory seeking behaviors such as excessive or repetitive body movements, touching everything, making sounds, or licking/chewing on non-food items. The body may be responding too little to typical input, to the point that the seeker looks for more of it to remain at baseline. 

It is important to begin to recognize sensory over-and-under responsiveness and the role it plays in sensory regulation. Understanding what kind of behaviors a child has, will allow you to choose the right remedy. 

  • Over-responsive → Sensory Avoider → Need for less
  • Solution – calming activities, breathing exercises, variety of activities to slowly increase comfort level 
  • Under-responsive → Sensory Seeker → Need for more 
  • Solution: heavy work, brain breaks, fidget tools, variety of sensory experiences

Resources from the OT Toolbox for Deep Breathing, Self-Regulation activities, Emotional Learning and Regulation, and the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook are a perfect starting point. 

SENSORY DYSREGULATION IS NOT: 

Sensory dysregulation is NOT the same as behavioral or emotional dysregulation, which may look like:

Not sensory dysregulation:

  • Crying at the store after they were told “no”
  • Pushing their brother after he took their toy
  • Eating all foods but never what the family is eating 
  • Dumping/throwing toys after being told it’s time to clean up 
  • Covering their ears during a fire alarm
  • Screaming after a sibling teased them

You may be thinking, wait a minute…some of those actions are sensory-based behaviors! 

You are correct! However, just because something is related to the sensory experience, does not always mean that sensory dysregulation is occurring. 

As an example; the sound of a fire alarm is loud auditory input, however, covering your ears during a loud sound is a normal response. If there is more of a reaction than that, for instance, if a child is inconsolable or unable to move on after the fire alarm, that may be considered sensory dysregulation.  

Sensory Dysregulation Symptoms

When symptoms of sensory dysregulation is in question, you should be asking:

  • What does the environment look like? Feel like? 
  • What is the child communicating with their actions? 
  • When and where does this behavior typically occur? In what similar situations does it not occur? 

Some behaviors, like pushing, can be tricky to determine if it is sensory or behavior; Look at the trigger. The proprioceptive system can be dysregulated. Is the child pushing for sensory reasons? 

  • Bumping into things during play, crashing often, seemingly unaware of their body? Then they may have some sensory dysregulation going on that is increasing their need for input.  Pushing people who get too close, hugging too hard, or bumping into people, may also be signs of sensory dysregulation.
  • If a child pushes a friend after they did something mean, that is just poor social skills. 

HOW CAN YOU support Sensory Dysregulation?

If a child’s sensory system is dysregulated, there is good news: there are many ways to help! There is a catch though – there is no “one size fits all”. Trial and error is the name of the game with sensory interventions.

Once you and your child find out what works for them and their changing environments, they will have a deeper understanding of themselves, and display improved behaviors in no time! 

Check out these resources for sensory integration, calming exercises, self-regulation activities, and more! 

Tactile Sensory Input:

Heavy Work/ Propceptive Sensory Input:

Vestibular Sensory Input:

Combined Sensory Input:

Deep Breathing Activities:

Mindfulness:

If you have tried everything, and are feeling a bit lost, you are not alone! Sensory dysregulation is tricky. It should be considered alongside many other aspects of why a child reacts a certain way. In addition to behavior, emotions, and self-regulation; history, habits, trauma, and mental status can have a powerful influence on actions, too. 

Keep trying – some things may feel like a roadblocks but there are specific action strategies you can use!

The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook walks you through sensory processing information, each step of creating a meaningful and motivating sensory diet, that is guided by the individual’s personal interests and preferences.

The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is not just about creating a sensory diet to meet sensory processing needs. This handbook is your key to creating an active and thriving lifestyle based on a deep understanding of sensory processing.

Sydney Thorson, OTR/L, is a new occupational therapist working in school-based therapy. Her
background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about
providing individualized and meaningful treatment for each child and their family. Sydney is also
a children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.

Bedtime Relaxation Stretches for Kids

Relaxation stretches for bedtime

In this post, you will find calming bedtime relaxation stretches for kids and families, based on the popular children’s book, Time for Bed. These activities are perfect for helping kids calm down before bed. We know the power of sleep hygiene in child development, but let’s consider the powerful impact of stretches before bed have on children.

Relaxation Stretches for Kids Sleep

An important thing to cover when it comes to helping children fall asleep and stay asleep at night is the concept of pre-bedtime yoga. When kids participate in bedtime stretches as part of their bedtime routine, it’s a sensory diet that supports sleep.

relaxation stretches for bed time
Use animal theme yoga poses to support relaxation at bedtime.

One thing that we’ll cover here is the impact that the interoception sensory system has on sleep.

Related is our resource on the role occupational therapy professionals can play in sleep for the whole family, when it comes to supporting a baby or newborn not sleeping.

Relaxation Stretches for Kids Sleep

An important thing to cover when it comes to helping children fall asleep and stay asleep at night is the concept of pre-bedtime yoga. When kids participate in bedtime stretches as part of their bedtime routine, it’s a sensory diet that supports sleep.

I love to bring this concept together for kids by first talking about how everyone needs sleep. Kids, adults, and even pets and animals. Sleep supports growth, learning, and allows our brains to rest. You can even use a few of our hibernation activities to take this concept further with kids, depending on the interest level.

Use these relaxation stretches for bedtime to incorporate calming sensory input.

One thing that we’ll cover here is the impact of the interoception sensory system has on sleep.

Children can get a little wound up before bed.  All it takes is one rouge energy burst and you’ve got giggling kids bouncing from every surface imaginable.  

Couch cushions? check. They are jumping up and down.  

Running from room to room? Check. There’s two of them chasing one another back and forth will the occasional knee slide across the hardwoods.  

Practicing the living room tumbling skills? Yep and check. There’s one more doing somersaults across the room.

Why must they gang up on me with their endless energy during those exhausting pre-bedtime hours?

Having a set of bedtime relaxation stretches in the nightly routine can support sensory needs and promote a sense of calm before bedtime, just when children are wound up and excitable.

benefits of stretching before bed

We know that sleep is a necessary occupation for all of us, but for children sleep patterns and healthy sleep cycles support so many aspects of development.

  • Cognition
  • Learning
  • Behavior
  • Nutrition
  • Emotional development
  • Social development

When children don’t get enough hours of sleep, or if they don’t get quality sleep on a consistent basis, there are several things that can occur:

  • Poor focus
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Attention and behavior problems
  • Poor academic performance in school
  • Excess weight or increased food intake
  • Problems paying attention
  • Health problems: obesity, type 2 diabetes, poor mental health, and injuries
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Poor mental health
  • Unhealthy risky behaviors related to decision-making
  • Risk-taking behaviors, bullying, school violence-related behaviors, and physical fighting
  • Higher risk of unintentional injury

There are several studies describing the benefits of stretching before bed. Kids can benefit from a pre-bedtime stretching sessions to integrate sensory processing systems and the calming benefits of slow movement, heavy work as a regulation tool. This calms the body and helps with relaxation before bed.

Stretching before bed supports sleep quality. One review of multiple studies found that mindfulness meditation practices that incorporate gentle stretching, such as yoga and tai chi, generally improve sleep quality.

Another study found that older adults reported improved sleep quality after performing low level physical and cognitive activity. The researchers found that gentle stretching resulted in better sleep than when the participants performed more strenuous exercises, such as aerobics.

Bedtime stretches help kids stay asleep. A study into resistance exercise training and stretching found that exercises could improve symptoms of insomnia. In the study, the participants performed stretching in 60-minute sessions three times per week for a period of 4 months. The results showed improved sleep quality when stretching in the evening.

Better sleep supports learning and executive functioning skills. Other studies tell us that better sleep hygiene in children support development of executive functioning skills.

yoga poses for stress relief

Today, I’m sharing a great way to calm kids down before bed so that quality sleep is possible. These yoga poses for stress relief and bedtime relaxation promote organizing heavy work through the proprioceptive sensory system and gentle movement through the vestibular sensory system.

Another contributing factor is the interoceptive system which connects our internal systems such as digestion, heart rate, circadian rhythms, and muscle tension. All of these factors play a vital role in impacting sleep, with both the ability to fall asleep, and the ability to stay asleep throughout the night. This study shares more on the interoceptive system’s role in sleep.

These organizing and calming yoga poses stretch the muscles and joints to offer feedback to regulate an overactive system.

If you’ve ever participated in a yoga session, you know the benefits of certain yoga poses in reducing stress and anxiety.

It’s important to make the connection between stress responses, anxiety, over-active thoughts, and a hyper-response to stimulation and emotional responses. The difficulty in identifying and describing emotions in self (a huge part of social emotional learning and development) is referred to as Alexithymia.

This ability develop social emotional skills occurs with age, and social skills interventions.

Specifically, alexithymia is defined as difficulty identifying and describing emotions in self. We know that noticing and understanding internal body signals (aka interoception) is crucial to a bodily systems, so it makes sense that if interoception is affected, using or showing emotions, and identifying emotions in self will be affected.

Interoception influences emotions by it’s control and underlying influence on internal processes of the body: toileting, hunger, thirst, and sleep!

When interoception impacts sleep, it then further impacts emotions:

  • stress
  • getting angry or frustrated easily
  • anxiety
  • fear
  • worry
  • overly emotional responses
  • sadness
  • over-excitability
  • hyperactive responses

All of these emotional responses are normal and good feelings to experience. However, when sleep is reduced, they can move into an area of impacting other functional tasks or everyday occupations.

You’ll also find information and resources in this article on the limbic system including the stress response. You can see how all of these concepts fit together to impact daily functioning.

How to use yoga poses for stress relief with children

Using yoga to support relaxation at bedtime is not a new concept. Yoga naturally supports relaxation through the heavy work input of the proprioceptive sense.

However, yoga also adds the benefit of deep breathing exercises to calm and center the body as an organization tool.

When it comes to bedtime, adding anything to the nightly routine can mean a delayed bedtime, so making the relaxation stretches part of the routine that is already in place is important. If you read a book together each night, incorporate stretches into that. If brushing teeth and going to the bathroom are the only tasks that happen each night, use the time just after those jobs to do a few stretches.

Adding bedtime stretches for the purpose of relaxation doesn’t need to be difficult. The most important thing here is to make it work for your situation and home. down the somersaults and hardwood floor stunts into relaxing bedtime.  

Here are some tips to support relaxation at bedtime:

  • Use bedtime relaxation stretches in a nightly routine. A visual schedule can be helpful with some kids.
  • Dim the lights and turn on soothing music
  • Read a book before bed
  • Drink a warm drink as a calming food/sensory tool.
  • Set the mood for sleep with a calming bedroom or sleep space: snuggly blankets, cozy pillows, or cool temperature, depending on the individual’s preferences.
  • Use the relaxation stretches listed below.

One way that helps to get kids relaxed before bed is reading a great book.  When kids can listen to an engaging story that is read aloud, their bodies can’t help but slow down.  

Bedtime Relaxation Stretches for Kids

These bedtime relaxation stretches are a combination of relaxing yoga moves and heavy work that helps to ground the body through proprioceptive input to the body’s sensory receptors in the muscles. 

Performing these relaxing stretches can help transition kids to a calmed state that allows for a better sleep.

Below are forms of yoga poses for children.

We decided to use one of our favorite going to bed books, (Amazon affiliate link) Mem Fox’s Time for Bed

In the book, we hear a rhyming verse about each animal’s transition to sleep.  It’s such a beautiful book to snuggle up with kids during night time routines.  In fact, Time for Bed can easily become one of those books that you read over and over again.

We loved looking at the watercolor pictures in Time for Bed and picturing each animal as it got ready for sleep.  

To go along with the book, we tried some of these bedtime relaxation stretches. 

Grab your copy of the free printable below by entering your email address into the form, or going to The OT Toolbox Member’s Club and heading to the Mindfulness Toolbox.

Time for Bed book by Mem Fox and relaxation stretches for bedtime

To do these exercises, simply cut out the printable on the lines, and create a small stack of stretches.  Kids can do one or more of these relaxation stretches to calm down before settling in with the Time for Bed book.

Simply pull out a couple of the stretches and join your child on the floor to perform each stretch.  The stretches are designed based on the animals in the book.  

When doing the stretches, hold the stretch for 2-3 minutes while maintaining deep breathing. 

Bedtime relaxation stretches
Print off these relaxation stretches for a bedtime calm down session for kids.

As we all know, kids will be kids.  If your child is getting too wound up from the stretches (because sometimes the sleepy sillies take over and make concentrating on stretches and relaxing deep breaths nearly impossible!) simply put the stretches away and try them another day.

Bedtime stretches with an animal theme
Relaxation stretch for kids, incorporating yoga poses for stress, anxiety, or to calm down before bed.

Your child will love doing these bedtime relaxation stretches with you and the whole family!

Bedtime stretches to do before bed

Little Goose Stretch– Lie on the floor on your back, with your feet raised up on the wall.  Keep your knees straight.  Spread your arms out on the floor like a goose.  Bend and point your toes slowly.

Little Cat Stretch– Snuggle in tight!  Sit criss cross applesauce on the floor.  Bend forward at the hips and place your head on the ground.  Stretch your arms out on the floor over your head.

Little Calf Stretch– Grasp both hands together behind your back.  Bend forward at the hips and raise your arms up behind you.

Little Foal Stretch– Lie on your back and pull your knees in with your arms.  Hold the position and whisper about your day.

Little Fish Stretch–  Take a deep breath. Hold your breath in your cheeks and puff out those cheeks.  Slowly let out your breath with pursed lips.

Little Sheep Stretch–  Stand facing a wall and place your feet shoulder width apart.  Place your hands flat on the wall, shoulder width apart.  Push against the wall by bending and straightening your elbows.

Little Bird Stretch–  Close your eyes.  Think about your day and take deep breaths.  Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Add a “wing” component by raising your arms up high as you breathe in and lowering them as you slowly breathe out.

Little Snake Stretch–  Lie on your back on the floor.  Keep your legs straight and cross them at the ankles.  Place your arms over your head on the floor.  Cross them at the wrists.  

Little Pup Stretch–  Get into a downward dog yoga position.  

Little Deer Stretch– Sit on the floor with your legs straight. Spread them far apart and bend at the hips to touch one foot.  Hold it and then stretch to touch the other foot.

Try this tonight!  Do a few stretches and then snuggle up while reading Time for Bed!

Calming bedtime books for kids

MORE relaxing bedtime books for kids

These relaxing bedtime books for kids are other ideas to use to support calming sensory input in a relaxation bedtime routine:

Amazon affiliate links are included below:

Free Printable set of relaxation stretches for bedtime

Use the Time For Bed book and relaxation stretches we used above in a bedtime routine of your own. Get a printable PDF of these stretches by entering your email address into the form below. Or, members in The OT Toolbox membership club can grab this PDF by logging in and heading to Brain Break Tools.

Free Time For Bed Relaxation Stretches

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    One more thing! If you are into creative ways to extend and learn based on books, you will LOVE this resource! 50 activities based on books that address friendship, acceptance, emotions…This ebook is amazing for covering all things emotional development through play!

    Get yours!  

    Read more about the book here.

    Exploring Books through Play helps kids develop fine motor skills and gross motor skills while learning about empathy and compassion.