Parents live for those special moments when we see our babies experience something new; smiling, crawling, taking their first steps, tasting their first food. But as we are all aware, not all babies are the same nor do all babies learn at the same pace. And some may even grow to have some sensory issues.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. People with SPD might be overwhelmed or underwhelmed by certain things within their environment. Sounds that seem normal to most people, like a hairdryer, may be upsetting to a person with SPD.
There have been times with my son where I have turned on the blender to make a smoothie or a sauce, and he runs over, holds my hand, and sometimes nearly cries. When I brought this up to our pediatrician, she said blenders are often even loud for adults. This particular sound sensitivity did not spark her as a possible sensory disorder. But she said it was good that I was noticing how he was reacting to these kinds of things because sensory disorders are often recognized and identified in younger children.
Ever since that appointment, I have always been interested in learning more about sensory issues in babies, so I reached out to Mary Gegg, a school-based occupational therapist, to answer some key questions to help parents of children who may have sensory issues.
How would you define sensory issues?
There are seven senses: auditory, tactile, vision, olfactory, oral, proprioception, and vestibular. Sensory issues may be from too much input or too little input. Each person’s individual sensory systems require varying amounts of input to stay regulated.
A good image to describe this is a cup. Everyone’s regulation line is at a different level on their cups. It would require more input to reach some people’s lines than others. When you are overstimulated or understimulated, they will seek out the needed input they need to regulate themselves. Dysregulation can look like a behavioral or motor response.
Are there any known factors as to why some kids have sensory issues?
The cause is unknown. There could be environmental or genetic factors.
If a parent believes their child may have sensory issues, how would they go about getting that diagnosed?
Talk with their pediatrician and [get] an evaluation by an occupational therapist. An occupational therapist would assess the child’s sensory processing.
What does treatment look like for kids who have sensory issues?
Treatment would focus on teaching coping strategies to the stimuli that are overstimulating or learning activities or strategies to achieve the regulation level the child needs. A “sensory diet” may be established. A sensory diet is a list of sensory activities for home and school (if applicable) that help the child stay regulated and focused.
How can toys help babies with sensory issues?
Toys are great for exploring sensory input with all the various textures, sounds, and visual input that they provide. All children benefit from playing with toys that allow them to explore many types of sensory input.
If a child has sensory difficulties, toys can be used to target the sensory system that may be understimulated. Toys that elicit sensory input can also help to decrease aversion to a sensory input as well. For example, a child with tactile aversion could have more toys that have various textures to allow them to increase their tolerance in a way that is fun, can be easily controlled, and that makes them feel safe and not overwhelmed. Toys can also be used as a calming strategy for overstimulation.
Are there certain sensory toys that you recommend for kids?
Touch and feel books, sound books, balls that flash or have different textures, blocks with different textures, rattles and musical toys, crinkle books, toys with many colors, toys with buttons that would elicit a sound or a light, swings; playtime mat to encourage play on the belly, back, sitting, or standing; pillows to climb on or crash into (toddlers), bottles filled with rice or beans, teethers with different textures (babies); or sensory bins filled with rice, beans, or pasta to find objects (toddlers).
Is there any other advice for parents currently navigating this journey?
Sensory systems are always changing. A successful strategy may not always be a successful strategy. As a sensory system develops and changes, so must the strategies that are used.