Developmental Issues: Does Your Baby Have Sensory Integration Issues? So What?

NancyToday is the final installment of my extensive interview with Nancy Peske. She and Lindsey Biel, co-authors of Raising A Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Integration Issues, have given us some terrific information about sensory development in both typically and atypically-developing children.

Today, she'll be helping us manage our expectations of our children. What is reasonable to expect, as a parent? If our child has sensory differences or challenges, how can we avoid disappointment, and respect and value our kids for who they really are?

BabyShrink: My readers are talking a lot about the emotional side of having babies who challenge their expectations of what it will be like to be a parent. If their baby is somehow different than they expected; needs more (or less) stimulation, comforting, sleep, etc., they are often surprised when their babies do not match the descriptions of newborn behavior in the "What To Expect" type books. They start to feel guilty that they are somehow not "making the grade" as a parent.

What can you say to these parents about the realities of parenting such a baby? How can they themselves cope with the strong feelings that may arise in such a case? How can they avoid beating themselves up, blaming themselves, and instead enjoy their own, unique child?

Nancy Peske: We're told by books and experts to not compare our children to others, but then we constantly get the subtle message that we should do exactly that! In general, most people don't look at a child's behavior or development and say, “Oh, I wonder if there's something unusual happening with that child at a biological level?”

And some people don't believe at all in biological causes of behaviors, and will quickly judge you and your little one, saying, “Send him over to my house for a few days. I'll straighten him out.”

When you hear criticism, consider the source. This is not necessarily someone who understands you, your child, or your child's special needs, and they might very well completely fall apart if they had to deal with your child 24/7 not knowing all that you've figured out! Picture them dealing with the screaming tantrum, the panic attack, or the diaper showdown, and just smile.

The more you use your sensory smarts to discover what's going on and come up with solutions to problematic behaviors and to help your child move forward developmentally, the more you'll truly understand that your child is dealing with a system that functions differently from that of other children. When you hold your toddler in your lap, gently squeeze her feet, legs, hands, and arms, and “magically” transform her from an overstimulated, fussing child into one who will walk over to the other kids and begin playing next to them, you start feeling empowered, because you know her shyness and whimpering is not due to her being a “bad” child or you being a “bad” parent. You're able to recognize what she needs and help provide it (and as she grows older, you can teach her how to get the sensory input she needs in a socially acceptable way).

One thing that can be extremely helpful is to join a support group or play group where you can talk to other parents whose kids aren't developing or behaving typically. There are many wonderful online support groups where you can hear from parents who have been there, who have advice and encouraging words that will make you feel that you're a competent, wonderful parent who is simply dealing with a bigger challenge than you anticipated. A special needs playgroup or Mom-and-Baby group can provide your child with a chance to socialize in an atmosphere where his “different” behavior will be accepted and honored, and where you can be supported by other parents as you support them. Parents of typically developing children--even when they've known you for years or are family--may never understand your child's issues, but over time, they may well come to see that you truly did have a very different challenge to face.

BS: What can you say to these parents about the realities of parenting such a baby? How can they themselves cope with the strong feelings that may arise in such a case? How can they avoid beating themselves up, blaming themselves, and instead enjoy their own, unique baby?

NP: I always think it's a good idea to keep records of your child's milestones and to celebrate them. Bake cookies the first time she takes a bath without a meltdown. Write it on the calendar and mark it in the baby book. Take a photo of her smiling in the bath. On your worst days, go back and look at your photos, or your home movies, of your child and remind yourself how far she's come.

Focus on development as a process and forget about timelines and what he "should" be doing by such and such an age. Again, this is where support groups can help. I learned I'm not the only one whose child didn't dress himself until age six, and so what? He eventually learned, and it certainly didn't prevent us from having a happy family life.

Try to let go of your ideas about what's “normal.” What's so very important about being “normal” anyway? Many of the most interesting, creative people in the world are wired differently, whether they're dyslexic, have ADHD, or whatever. If your child isn't typical, it may mean she's meant to do something very special. Then too, really make a point of noticing your child's wonderful qualities. It's so easy to see them as a bundle of problems when you first begin dealing with diagnoses such as sensory integration dysfunction. Isn't it great that your kid has such high energy that he gets plenty of exercise? Isn't it great that she has exquisitely sensitive hearing and truly appreciates various types of music? Whether your child's special qualities are being empathetic, creative and resourceful, or able to deeply focus on tasks, remind yourself of these gifts so that you don't become disheartened by all the challenges in raising a child who is different, and so you don't start thinking that “different” is bad.

Mahalo and aloha to you, Nancy and Lindsey! Don't forget to visit their website for loads of support and information.

Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink