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The Importance of the Sensory System in Child Development

Eating is the most sensory-rich activity a child will experience. That’s why it’s so important to understand how a child’s sensory systems can have an impact on their feeding development.  

The sensory system is a complex group of neurons (cells in the body), cell pathways and parts of the brain that work together to allow an individual to feel different sensations from the environment. A child’s senses are used to learn while they are growing in the womb, and this learning continues the moment they are born.

The 8 Senses That Make Up Our Sensory Systems

Information that comes to the body through the eyes (what one sees)Bright lights, dim lights, colors, shapes, faces, fast- or slow-moving objects, distance to objects and faces (near or far), etc.
Hearing (Auditory)Information that comes to the body through the ears (what one hears)Loud and soft noises, voices, music, high- and low-pitched sounds, etc.
Smelling (Olfactory)Information that comes to the body through the nose (what one smells)Strong and light smells, unpleasant and pleasant smells, scents of people, places and foods/liquids, etc.
Tasting (Gustatory) Information that comes to the body through the tongue (what one tastes, eats or drinks)Different flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, etc.)
Touching (Tactile)Information that comes to the body through the skin and mouth (what one feels on the body)Light touch, deep pressure touch, temperatures, pain, vibration, different textures (smooth, lumpy, crunchy, hard, etc.)
Balance and Movement (Vestibular)Information that comes to the body through different movements (what one feels when the body moves up, down, backward, forward, sideways, rotationally, etc.)Rocking, swaying, swinging, turning, bouncing, spinning, standing up, sitting down, balancing, etc.
Joints and Muscle Awareness (Proprioception)Information that comes to the body through sensations felt in the joints and muscles (what one feels when their body is in different positions and in contact with objects such as people, chairs or the ground)Sitting, walking, running, crawling, climbing, stomping feet, jumping, clapping hands, pushing and pulling heavy items, lifting and carrying items, etc.
Recognizing Sensations Inside the Body (Interoception)Information that comes from within the body and that relates to one’s physical state or condition (what one senses from the organs)Hunger, thirst, fullness, heart rate, breathing rate, temperature, bowel and bladder needs, etc.

Why Is the Sensory System Important? 

Sensory systems have a powerful impact on the success of mealtimes for our children. Every individual has a sensory system that is unique to them. The way a child’s sensory system is made will impact the way he experiences the world, including feedings and mealtimes. For example, the different tastes and smells of food can lead to a positive, enjoyable mealtime. However, if the tastes and smells are perceived as “bad,” negative or unappetizing, this can lead to a stressful and unenjoyable feeding experience. It is a parent’s job to discover a child’s sensory preferences (what sensations his body likes most and least) and any sensory challenges in order to make mealtimes and all daily activities more comfortable and manageable. 

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Every Child Is Unique 

Just as every child has certain preferences or capacities (a favorite hobby, craft or skill they are best at), every child also has a sensory system that is unique to them. Further, a child may have a hypersensitive sensory system or a hyposensitive sensory system. We call these “sensory sensitivities.” Children may also be overstimulated or understimulated in their environments and when they encounter certain sensory information.

Because sensory sensitivities can make feedings much more challenging, it is important that parents are able to identify when a child may be showing areas of concern and that they know how to help.

Because sensory sensitivities can make feedings much more challenging, it is important that parents are able to identify when a child may be showing areas of concern and that they know how to help. Different sensory information can cause a child to have more hypersensitive and hyposensitive reactions or less hypersensitive and hyposensitive reactions. Understanding what a child may be reacting to in an environment, especially during mealtimes, can help caregivers limit a child’s overstimulation or understimulation and make daily routines easier. 

8 Tips for Supporting Sensory Systems at Mealtimes  

1. Observe your child. Your child will show you their sensory preferences and needs through their reactions and behaviors. Let them show you what works best. 

2. Be prepared. Preparing children before a meal is critical for a successful mealtime. Prepare the environment as well as your child’s body and mind.

3. Know your child’s preferences. Every child will have unique and different sensory preferences. These preferences can often change.

4. Choose foods that are enjoyable. Offer items that a child can successfully eat and drink and that will be enjoyable for them. Offer new items alongside familiar ones to increase a child’s interest and comfort. 

5. Start with the familiar. Children do best when they are presented with consistent, familiar routines. Keep a schedule for meals, use the same feeding utensils, feed in the same chair and room, and offer a child a familiar food or liquid first. Expand to new flavors and textures when a child is ready. 

6. Make changes slowly. Children with sensitive sensory systems do well when changes are made one at a time versus all at once. Take your time when making mealtime changes, including offering a new flavor or texture. 

7. Offer lots of exploration time. Exploration of different non-food items and food items with different textures and flavors is a great way to support sensitive sensory systems. Let children explore items using all of their senses, especially using their hands. 

8. Be positive! Children learn best in the context of positive relationships. Offering positive interactions with a child during mealtimes (and beyond) is the best way to support this process. 

All children have a sensory system that is special to them. These systems, whether highly sensitive or not, can impact mealtimes and feeding development. When parents discover how best to support a child’s sensory preferences and needs, they allow their child the chance to experience the world in a safer and more comfortable way. If you have any sensory questions or challenges, seek out the support of an expert in your community, such as a feeding specialist or occupational therapist.  

For more details on feeding best practices, download Holt International’s Feeding & Positioning Manual: Guidelines for Working With Babies and Children. 

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