Sensory Mismatch & Bedtime Routines

A challenging thing about having children with vastly different sensory processing styles, or about having a very different sensory processing style yourself than your child, can be finding solutions in your family that meet both needs.

I get requests to write about this “sensory mismatch” a lot—for good reason! It’s a complicated topic. It’s a bit too complicated for me to hope to cover all in one Facebook post. I have children who have very very different sensory processing styles, so I’ve been doing my best to pay attention to what things I do that I feel work well for us all in areas where their styles might be inclined to conflict. And I’ll try to write about these more often as I pay attention to them.

The first one that jumped out at me was the way we do bedtime. The cast of characters in our particular bedtime is 95% of the time me and both kids:
“Apollo”, 5.5 years old, the very definition of a “sensory misser”/low registration kid most of the time, who rapidly shifts to becoming sensory sensitive as he gets tapped out throughout the day. So, by bedtime, we’re usually firmly in sensitive territory.
“Summer”, 4 years old, a blend between sensory seeking and sensory avoidant at pretty much all times, she’s just the pinnacle of “I know what I need and I’m going to chase it” whether that need be more sensation or less sensation. Her dysregulation either looks like peak-4 “rage and fury” or peak-sensory seeking “silly silly silly but not even really enjoying it”.
And me, who is sensory avoidant at best and very very sensory avoidant at worst. 😉

Summer adores novelty, music, 4yo jokes which are mostly just poop, small animals of all kinds, unicorns, horses, scripting what everybody else around her should say, being tickled, independence, and fuzzy blankets.
Apollo adores routine and predictability, quiet, building amazing things out of small parts for hours at a time, one particular blanket, infrastructure like pipes and electricity, vehicles, being the oldest and the first and the one in front, and playing chasing games but only if he initiated them.

(As a side note, if you’re struggling with connection with your kids lately, may I recommend writing out a little “intro to them” like I’m doing here? Write it in your phone or on a scrap of paper or in the comments if you’d like. Cause dang, that was not the original point of this post but it’s really making me sit here like “my kids are so cool!” 🥰 anyway I digress)

Bedtime works in general like this: at some point between “the hour that marks the beginning of the bedtime window” and “the hour that marks the end of the bedtime window”, we all go upstairs. Their teeth are brushed in some capacity. An inhaler medication may be taken, if it is the time of year when it is required. Their pull-ups are put onto their bodies. Songs are generally sung. Books may be read. Some kind of play usually occurs.

We have all the elements of a routine but we’re utterly flexible in how it actually plays out. I up or down the “strictness” of the adherence to the routine mostly depending upon how much Apollo is falling apart by that point.

There are days when both kids are high-energy and wiggly and silly.
-These days are more likely to involve roughhousing play.
-Sometimes the roughhousing involves me.
-Sometimes it involves me sitting and throwing pillows at them when *my* body isn’t feeling it but theirs are.
-Sometimes it involves me “chasing them slowly”, a game invented by Apollo because he was begging me to chase him and I told him I was too tired, in which I simply walk toward both children at a normal or slow pace and they scream and laugh and jump all over the walls and each other and themselves running away from me while I occasionally make “raaaarrr” noises.
-Usually it involves me play-wrestling their pull-ups onto them — no one in this game is angry, but they kick and roll around and laugh and I wrestle them to get them on.
-Usually it involves me play-wrestling their teeth brushed, too, or at least chasing them around with the toothbrush for awhile first and sometimes pretending to brush all the wrong parts of their body before I “remember” that it’s supposed to be teeth.
-On days when I am sad, hurting, or completely tapped out, these are most likely to involve me skipping tooth brushing, or just accepting whatever halfhearted pass at brushing their own teeth that they’ll do, rather than chase them about it.

There are days when Apollo is already feeling emotional, tapped out, or dysregulated, but Summer is doing well and happy and high-energy.
-These days are much more likely to involve me carrying Apollo up the stairs like a baby. (This is no small feat!)
-If I’m sad, hurting, or tapped out and can’t carry him, I commonly invite both kids to pretend to be cats with me and we all crawl up the stairs while mewling pathetically. A good variant on this game is “we’re sad cats who are stuck in the rain and the rain is downstairs and upstairs it’s safe and dry”. I will play rain sound effects on my phone to add to the game.
-Apollo is very likely to wrap himself up in his pink blanket, often wrapping it around his head too if he’s tapped out noise-wise.
-I’m most likely to brush his teeth for him while he lays in bed wrapped up in his blanket, and probably put his pull-up on him that way too. If he’s stressed about me doing either of those things then pretending he’s a baby sometimes helps. Like I just physically say “oh little baby Apollo I need to brush your little baby teeth” in an overly-cutesy voice and he makes baby noises.
-If Summer is fully out of whack and jumping around and over the top, then I might be able to buy myself a few minutes to put her to sleep first by suggesting Apollo open the cabinets and sit on the bathroom floor and look at the water pipes.
-Often during the “sing songs” portion of bedtime, I sing novel songs with Summer who craves novelty, or we play verbal games with the songs. For example, I leave out words, replace words with different words, replace words with funny noises, whisper all the songs, only mouth the songs without voicing them at all, drum on her back while singing songs, sing in a funny accent, etc.
-With Apollo, I exclusively sing the exact same six songs in the exact same way.
-Apollo likes to feel like Summer was put to bed first and him put to bed second (because he’s older — even though it’s *immediately* after, like, I close her door and I immediately go into his room with him). But sometimes if he’s the one holding up bedtime because he needs to cry or be held or whatever, then I’ll basically shuffle her off to her room without much connection and promise her that I’ll come back after I get him to bed. If she’s already feeling good, she’s usually fine with this.

There are days where Apollo is doing great, but Summer is super tapped out. Her dysregulation is much less likely to be flopping around, crying, and slowing down, and much more likely to be screaming, slamming doors, or just silly-overwhelmed.
-So that she doesn’t drag Apollo into it, I’ll often try to get him invested in building something in his room. Often this works by bringing up some novel toy or building material. It can be as simple as grabbing a toilet paper tube out of the bathroom and handing it to him and nudging him toward his room while physically blocking her for a moment until I can turn all my attention to her.
-If Apollo is dysregulated he wants to be hugging me; if Summer is dysregulated she usually screams at me to go away, but then instantaneously regrets it and screams at me to come back, but then screams at me to go away, etc… A common push/pull when kids are feeling two things and don’t know how they feel. Usually I will actually go outside of her room if I can help it and then wait for just like a few seconds for her to realize she does in fact want me there. If I stay in her room with her while she screams, she doesn’t seem to ever be able to resolve the two-feelings tension like she can if I just step out for a second.
-If Summer is angry-dysregulated then we drop singing immediately. Singing really upsets her when she’s feeling mad.
-If Summer is silly-dysregulated then she usually just begs me to tickle her the entire time I sing. I usually sing the same six songs, so I’ll tickle her a lot for songs one and two, then less, then less, until gradually I’m doing something calmer instead like rubbing or drumming on her back.

There are days where *everybody* is dysregulated. If possible, these are the few percentage of days where I call in reinforcements in the form of Dad. I know everybody doesn’t have that. If I had to, these would also be the days where I’m more likely to utilise screen time as a tool—I believe there’s appropriate times to process through emotions, but there’s sometimes appropriate times to distract *until* the appropriate time, too, and distracting until an adult can actually help co-regulate is exactly that type of situation.
-These are the days when the objective is for everybody to survive and for everybody to know they’re safe and loved. These things are more important than any individual component of bedtime routine!
-These are the days when I’m most likely to go back into whoever’s room a few times, or float between the two kids, to help one settle and then the other settle.
-These are the days when I’m constantly reminding myself in my head, like literally constantly, “THEY ARE TIRED. They are tired and not regulated. They are not learning. They are not ‘getting away with things’. They are tired and I am helping them get what they need which is to get to bed.’” Kid spills toothpaste on the floor? Kid needs me to undress them and dress them entirely? Kid refuses to bring their own blanket up the stairs and I have to bring it and I feel annoyedly treated like a pack mule? Kid has a sudden burning urgent need to take whatever into their bedroom? Sure. Okay. Whatever. We will clean up things another day. They will have more consideration for me when they are not at the end of their rope. I let it all roll off me. This takes so much practice and so much reminding myself that sometimes my only job is to just not make anything worse.
-Sometimes I end up physically holding one child on the right of my body and one child on the left of my body so that I can hug and hold everybody without them fighting with one another, in order to sing songs and rub backs and try to help everybody regulate together.
-These are the days when books are either best or worst. Sometimes a book will help everybody settle. Sometimes nobody can agree on a book and it just gets set aside for the night.

Well, I think this incredibly long post is a bit all over the place, but hopefully it’s helpful: some of the things that are in my head on any given day, things I can choose to “turn on” or “turn off” depending on who needs what, and hopefully help everybody get what they need.