Developmental Issues: Does My Child Have Sensory Issues? Nancy Peske Helps Us Decide

Nancy Peske, co-author of Raising a Sensory-Smart Child: A Practical Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Integration Issues, has been so generous in her support of BabyShrink. Last time, Nancy told us about what it's like to have a baby with sensory issues. Today, she'll tell us about how we can begin to sort out our baby's sensory preferences.

Dr. Heather: Tell me about the "detective process" that parents must go through in order to figure out their baby's sensory issues. It starts out being a vague sense of something wrong, or just having a "difficult baby". How do parents start to narrow down the issue to find what's really going on? What do they need to observe or record? What can parents do to better understand their baby?

Nancy Peske: There are different "detective" methods. For me, it was simply a matter of tuning in to my own senses. I have mild sensory issues, as many parents of kids with sensory issues do, so when my son would fuss or show signs of anxiety, I would automatically think about the sensory environment, focusing on anything that was unusual or perhaps intense: lighting, smells, background noise, wind, temperature, and so on.

Journaling can be very helpful. Write down what your child did each day, and at what time, including what he ate, when he was cooperative and happy and when he was miserable and uncooperative. One mom told me this helped her realize that she was keeping her child too busy, not giving him enough quiet, unstructured time. Another told me she realized her daughter was always cranky if she went more than 3 hours between snacks or meals. If there's a sudden change in behavior, look at what might have changed. Always consider sleep, nutrition and eating, and external stress as well, from seasonal allergies and the sniffles to a substitute teacher at daycare that the child isn't yet comfortable with.

Focus, too, on when your child is unusually comfortable with a situation that would normally bother him and try to determine what's different. A mom told me her toddler suddenly wasn't agitated about his evening bath, and she realized the one thing she'd done differently was keeping the door closed while running the tub. Apparently, the harsh sound of water hitting porcelain was what had been agitating him, so after that, she always ran it with the door closed and he was fine with baths.

You can also run down the list of senses as you try to analyze what's working or not working in the environment for your child. Consider sight--is there a lot of visual clutter in the room overstimulating him? Is the lighting too bright or unusual in some way? Are the colors or contrasts too intense? Is it an unfamiliar sight-the yogurt container change its look and now your toddler won't eat the yogurt? (Hint: try not to serve kids foods from the container to prevent this!) Think about sound, from background noise to volume, to direction of sound (is it behind her? does she think that the rumbling truck outside might be coming toward her?) and quality of sound (stringed instrument vs. brass instrument, someone singing on a recording vs. someone singing live). Touch--this involves textures, temperature, wet vs. dry, and amount of pressure on the skin. Keep in mind that eating is very tactile, involving skin in the mouth. Your child may eat only one brand of mac and cheese and insist that the sauce not be too runny or thick. Taste and smell--children can be exquisitely sensitive to differences in taste or crave strong smells or tastes. Don't forget movement and body awareness. And finally, remember that transitions and getting used to new sensations are difficult for children. A child who just came out of a car that was driving on hilly roads may need a good, long stretch of lying on the ground or sitting quietly to regain her equilibrium after that vestibular stimulation. Leave extra time when shifting activities, and give plenty of warnings, so that your child's atypical nervous system has a chance to adjust to the change.

If you recognize that your child is processing sensory information atypically, that doesn't necessarily mean you need professional help. Simple accommodations for her differences, and gently encouraging her to try new activities that will broaden the range of sensations she'll tolerate and help her system function more typically, may be enough to make her feel more comfortable in her world. However, if sensory issues interfere with learning, socializing, and eating to a degree that's concerning and significant, more help is probably needed. A pediatric occupational therapist trained and experienced in dealing with sensory issues, who has worked with children your child's age, can be extremely helpful.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink