A common complaint for many caregivers of children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is sleeping issues. I have two children with SPD and both had tremendous struggles with sleep. For my daughter, it was a combination of several factors: she wasn’t able to tune out noises around her, she wasn’t able to calm her body down for rest and, most commonly, she couldn’t ‘calm her brain’ enough so she could fall asleep. The worst part was that most nights, she didn’t have as much trouble falling asleep as she did with staying asleep. And we tried many different methods to help her until we found what worked. My son, however, couldn’t sleep alone and co-slept with me until he was well into Kindergarten, which didn’t help my sleep any.
What I’ve come to realize is that in order to help our ‘sensational’ kids get those precious Z’s, we need to help them calm their busy brains. Think of what it’s like when you have had a very busy day and you just can’t seem to shut it off because ideas/’to do’s’/worries/etc. set in and take over. It’s the same thing for children with SPD, only tenfold as not only are their brains still going, so are their bodies.
The first thing we need to understand is that the brain is in charge of getting our bodies going as well as calming it back down. It sends messages around the body through neurotransmitters that carry both excitatory and calming chemicals during different times so the body knows how to respond to stimuli and when. One of these chemicals is called adrenaline (or epinephrine), which gets the body going. It’s released into the blood stream during ‘fight-or-flight’ moments so we’re ready to respond immediately. Another excitatory, called dopamine, helps us focus and concentrate during stressful times. Although both of these chemicals are important at appropriate times (eg: if we’re in danger, nervous or under stress), for children, especially for those with SPD, it can interfere with functioning.
If excitatory neurotransmitters show up in class, the child will appear restless, anxious and unable to concentrate. And if it’s present during rest or sleep time, it’s no wonder the brain isn’t able to calm the body enough to sleep.
What we don’t realize is that many of the items we consume increase the presence of these excitatory chemicals in the brain causing the child to appear overactive, hyper or other similar symptoms. Kelly Dorfman, M.S., L.N.D. and co-founder of the online resource Developmental Delay Resource, says that the six most common dietary excitement inducers include:
- Aspartame – I had no idea that artificial sweeteners are made of amino acid building blocks that stimulate the excitatory neurotransmitters.
- MSG – this is a common additive that enhances flavor in certain foods. It seems to agitate different sorts of arousal receptors in the brain. (Personally, my children and I get severe headaches when we eat foods that contain MSG.)
- Artificial colors – these mess with the liver’s detoxification system.
- Unidentified allergens – cause inflammation and chemical reactions. Dorfman states that the immune and nervous systems talk to each other and when the immune system is stressed, it can send ‘get going’ or ‘stop’ signals to the nervous system.
- Too much sugar – sugar turns into instant energy for children.
- Caffeine – gets the body going and can be ‘hidden’ in many different foods.
It would seem logical, then, that the first step in helping our kids sleep better is to eliminate the above excitement inducers. After that, Dorfman suggests adding the following supplements that can help quiet the brain:
- a) Magnesium. Many children are deficient in magnesium, which is an element that helps to induce muscle relaxation as well as to inhibit the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (an excitatory). A child over the age of two should have a dose of between 100 to 300 mg.
- b) Essential Fats. These fats are the base of brain structure. Research has shown that a deficiency in these precious fats can induce hyperactive symptoms. Increasing foods that have high omega 3 and 6 (like flaxseed or salmon) and/or adding an essential oil supplement can help with calming.
- c) GABA (short for gamma-amino butyric acid) is a calming neurotransmitter. It can help to decrease muscle tension and, in larger doses, induce drowsiness. Dorfman suggests between 300 – 600 mg, but up to 1000 mg can be used in children over 13. It’s also important to have vitamin B6 as it’s necessary to breakdown and use both GABA and magnesium.
It’s not an easy road to help your child calm his brain—we are still in the initial process of eliminating toxic and excitatory triggering foods. If you do things the natural route, before reaching for drugs, by removing the ‘exciting’ chemicals from the diet and using supplements known to quiet the most excited brain, you’ll be well on track to sleep-filled nights.
Calming the Brain, by Kelly Dorfman, M.S., L.N.D., DDR Co-Founder [Initially published in New Developments: Volume 5, Number 1 – Summer 1999]