You probably know that you're supposed to involve your baby or young child in safe sensory play, but you may not understand the importance of sensory integration or how it relates to your child's feeding and general development.
In short, your child's sensory system dramatically impacts how he perceives the world, how he learns, and even how he eats. When it's functioning as expected, you may not even think about sensory processing. However, when sensory integration goes awry, it can affect many facets of your child's life.
We want to share with you some background regarding sensory integration so you can understand why your child may react to certain sensory inputs, how to best support your child's sensory system, and how to know if your child needs help with sensory processing.
Sensory integration/processing helps people “make sense” of the world around them.
Think of all the sensations you experience while dressing, bathing, walking or even driving a car to the airport.
Sensory Integration is the process of using our senses to:
We usually think of five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch (tactile), and smell.
We also receive information from our body position sense known as proprioception, and balance and movement sense known as vestibular sense.
Touch Sense - Tactile
The tactile sense gives us information from our skin, including inside and outside our mouths. Every time you touch something or you are touched, your skin provides you with detailed information; this comes from the tactile sense. It allows you to tell the difference between a friendly touch versus to the uncomfortable feeling of a bug biting you on the arm.
Think of a child licking ice cream from a cone as it drips down their arm. Does the child continue eating the ice cream and lick off the drips, or is the child bothered completely by the drips, drops the cone, and becomes very upset? This is the tactile system hard at work, it is either seen as pleasurable or averse. As you can imagine, when a child perceives certain tactile sensations as very averse, it can dramatically affect their success with feeding.
Body Position Sense - Proprioception
Proprioception is our body's position sense. Proprioception is the ability to know where a body part is without having to look, and it helps us know how much pressure we need to do certain things. We use this sense when we pick up a paper cup filled with water without spilling or holding it too tightly.
For example, have you ever watched your child pull a wheeling suitcase or push a play shopping cart around the house and then change the weight of the suitcase or cart? Her proprioception changes when she realizes she must push or pull the object harder. This sense is automatic and happens without much conscious thought, and it is a result of your proprioceptors hard at work within your joints. Pretty cool, right?
Movement/Gravity Sense - Vestibular
The vestibular system is our balance and movement sense. The vestibular sense allows us to move smoothly and balance while engaged in activities. We use this sense when riding a skateboard or sliding down a slide at the playground.
Watch a toddler as they practice their balance on uneven surfaces at the park. He may struggle at first, but it usually improves with each trial.
When Our Senses Unite
Integrating and processing information from the tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems, along with the other senses (sight, sounds, taste and smell), makes it possible to successfully participate in everyday activities.
For example, visualize a six-year-old boy holding a baseball bat and trying to hit at a T-ball.
The tactile (touch) sense helps him hold his bat correctly. Proprioception (body) sense helps him know his body is in the correct position. Vestibular (balance and movement) sense helps him stay upright while swinging the bat. His vision (sight) and hearing (sound) are also key to his success in the game.
Our bodies are truly amazing when they work as expected. However, what happens when things don’t work automatically?
Some kids struggle with sensory integration, which can affect their success with feeding. These behaviors may include:
If you notice any of the above behaviors, which may affect your child's home or school environment, talk to your healthcare provider. Ask to be scheduled for a full assessment that includes a Sensory Processing Evaluation. Therapists trained in Sensory Integration utilize a play-based, child-friendly approach.
Children improve their ability to process and organize sensory information in a setting where the child can engage in a variety of fun sensory experiences. Therapy can help kids simply be kids, playing alongside friends, and fully enjoying their young lives while learning to respond to a sensory-rich world.
Want to help support and develop your child's sensory system? Utilize the following activities on a regular basis, and make sure to never pressure a child to do something he's not ready for yet (e.g. touch a texture he's averse to).
We wish you fun and playfulness on your sensory development journey!
Megan and Judy, co-owners of Feeding Littles, bring you helpful info on food, nutrition, picky eating, and feeding young children. Megan McNamee MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist based in Scottsdale, Arizona. Judy Delaware, OTR/L is an Occupational Therapist specializing in feeding therapy with children 3 and under in Boulder, Colorado. Megan and Judy are both moms of two and love helping families develop a healthy appetite for all foods!