Sensory challenges can occur for a variety of reasons. Every child is unique, as are the ways in which parents may offer sensory system support.
What’s most important is that caregivers deliver sensory solutions and support that properly align with a child’s strengths, abilities and needs in order to promote positive lifelong development.
Different sensory information can cause a child to have more hyposensitive and hypersensitive reactions or less hyposensitive and hypersensitive reactions.
Your job as a parent is not to make your child’s way smooth, but rather to help her develop inner resources so she can cope.Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD
- Hyposensitive (reduced sensitivity): When a child shows a reduced reaction to a specific sensation or sensory information. This reaction is less than expected.
- Hypersensitive (increased sensitivity): When a child shows a strong reaction to a specific sensation or sensory information. This reaction is stronger than expected.
Understanding what a child may be reacting to in an environment can help caregivers limit a child’s overstimulation or understimulation and make daily routines easier. Below are examples of common elements in our environment that provide sensory information that can help or hinder a child’s development.
|Common Sensory Information||Examples|
|Lighting||Bright or dim light, natural from outside, lamps, fluorescent lighting, etc.|
|Decorations in a Room||Painted walls, wallpaper, posters, windows, etc.|
|Noises||Music, voices, TVs, sounds from toys, street or city outside sounds, machine sounds, other children, etc.|
|Smells||Foods, liquids, perfume, soap, smoke, dirty diapers, trash, body odor, etc.|
|Touches||Holding, snuggling, diaper changing, dressing and undressing, face and hand wiping, crunchy food, etc.|
|Tastes||Food, liquid, spicy, sweet, sour, etc.|
|Movements||Rocking, swinging, crawling, walking, jumping, patting, bouncing, riding in a vehicle, being carried or held, picked up for diaper changes, etc.|
Common Sensory Solutions
There are many strategies that can assist caregivers in supporting a child’s individual sensory system needs. When questions or challenges arise, it’s best to seek out specialized support from a trained professional, such as an occupational therapist, physical therapist or speech-language pathologist.
However, there are some basic elements to keep in mind for supporting all babies and children. Listed below is a collection of general strategies for supporting a baby and child’s sensory system, organized into five groups:
- Listening to the child
- Preparing the environment
- Preparing the child
- Preparing the caregiver
- Maintaining safe, consistent and comfortable routines
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Listening to the Child
- Notice what sensory preferences and needs a child displays during daily activities.
- Observe items or activities they are frequently drawn to and those they might tend to avoid. A child will show you what their sensory preferences and needs are through their reactions and behaviors.
- Respect a child’s signs when they are showing you they are overstimulated or understimulated by sensory information and provide necessary support.
- Every child will have unique and different sensory preferences. Understand that these preferences can change often too.
- Use a child’s sensory preferences and needs to shape daily activities and make them more successful. Let a child show you what works best. This might mean changing elements in activities based on their responses to sensory information.
- Feed a child in a quieter room after noticing they become frustrated and cover their ears in a noisier setting.
- Encourage play activities that include a variety of full-body movements for a child who frequently seeks these out during daily routines.
- Offer nearby hand wipes or towels during messy play for a child with greater sensitivity.
Preparing the Environment
- Create environments that match the sensory needs of the child.
- Minimize distractions by dimming lights and reducing sounds in a room.
- Use soothing background music to support regulation (calming, body organization) and attention.
- Use lids to cover foods or liquids with strong smells.
- Offer utensils for children sensitive to touching foods with their hands.
- Face children away from “busy” rooms with lots of movement, colors, people and other visual distractions.
Preparing the Child
- Offer sensory-based preparation activities that match a child’s sensory needs before certain activities begin.
- Verbally and/or visually let a child know in advance that a certain routine or activity is coming; i.e., say “Five more minutes and then it’s time to eat.”
- Offer movement-based activities, such as rocking, patting, bouncing or massage, prior to certain routines to calm and organize a child or to help the child “wake up” and organize their system.
- Provide a comfortable and familiar space for a child during activities.
Preparing the Caregiver
- Keep a calm disposition during activities: Take deep breaths, play soothing music, talk quietly with the child or do something calming for yourself prior to activities. Calmness is catchy!
- Supporting a child with sensory sensitivities can be challenging. It’s OK to take your time and practice patience and flexibility.
- Children learn best in the context of positive relationships. Offering positive interactions with a child during all activities and routines is the best way to support your child’s individual sensory needs.
Maintaining Safe, Consistent and Comfortable Routines
- Children with sensitive sensory systems do well when changes are made one at a time versus all at once. Take your time when making changes to an activity or routine. Offer familiar items and routines first — then slowly expand and offer new options when a child shows readiness.
- Children do best when consistent, familiar routines are practiced regularly. Keep a daily schedule and minimize disruptions. Limit frequent changes to routines, by keeping the same caregiver(s), items, order of events, etc. When a change is necessary, make one change at a time and observe how a child responds.
- Show and tell a child what is happening next. Whether it’s an activity, different food, or a new person or place, letting a child know what to expect next is respectful and incredibly helpful.
- Let children explore items and activities using all their senses, but especially using their hands. Exploration of different non-preferred items and experiences is a great way to support sensitive sensory systems. Avoid forcing a child to explore items and activities. Instead, allow the child the chance to explore at a pace and space that best suits their system.
When caregivers discover how best to support a child’s sensory preferences and needs, they allow children the chance to experience the world in a safer, more comfortable way.
All children have a sensory system that is unique to them. These systems, whether highly sensitive or not, can impact daily activities, routines and their own development. When caregivers discover sensory solutions that work for them, they allow children the chance to experience the world in a safer, more comfortable way. When met with sensory curiosities or challenges, it’s best to seek assistance from an expert in your community, such as an occupational therapist or feeding specialist.
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