The BabyShrink Interview: Nancy Peske on Raising a ‘Sensory-Smart’ Child

Untitled1_2 I am honored to present my two-part interview with Nancy Peske, co-author of Raising a Sensory-Smart Child: A Practical Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Integration Issues, now in its ninth printing. Nancy and occupational therapist Lindsey Biel wrote their groundbreaking book to continued rave reviews in both the parenting and special needs communities. A National Parenting Publications Award-winner, Raising a Sensory Smart Child is easy to understand and provides real-world descriptions of sensory/developmental issues in children, and gives loads of activities and suggestions to help with our kids.

Nancy is a freelance writer and editor and has co-written, ghostwritten, and edited several bestsellers, including co-authoring the successful Cinematherapy series. She lives in Shorewood, WI with her husband and son, who was diagnosed with sensory integration dysfunction and multiple developmental delays at age two.

BabyShrink: How do sensory issues affect even very young babies? What is it like to be the parent of a new baby who has sensory differences?

Nancy Peske: Babies with sensory issues overreact to everyday sensations, or underreact, often seeking the sensory input their body needs. My son, who never stopped spinning and kicking in utero, was a very physically active baby, and he never seemed to touch things so much as whack them with all his strength – yet he never quite understood that he was hitting people instead of patting them. He also seemed to be constantly teething because the drooling just never stopped; I now know that this can be a sign of low muscle tone and poor body awareness, both of which are associated with sensory issues.

He was also a bad latch; it took three sisters-in-law and a lactation consultant to help me figure out how to get him to nurse properly so that he was getting milk and not whimpering every thirty minutes. Again, this was a problem with body awareness, and with motor planning. He was also overstimulated by wind, becoming hysterical whenever it kicked up, as well as by swinging. He would pitch a fit if we tried to take him out of the baby swing after 45 minutes. So you can have sensory seeking and overstimulation, but you can also have overstimulation and sensory avoiding. A baby might scream and carry on every time it's bathed, or its diaper is changed. Feeding might be an issue; if the food is the wrong color, temperature, or texture, she won't eat it, or will even gag on it. A baby might need to be held a certain way, such as on her stomach instead of her back, or get motion sickness extremely easily if she is sensitive to movement.

Sensory issues also affect the body’s internal regulation. Falling asleep, waking up without being groggy, and calming down after stimulation and excitement, can all be very difficult for a sensory baby. Letting the baby “cry it out” a few times does not work with these little ones!

Habituation (getting used to a new situation) is also an issue. The toddler who is chilled just can’t seem to warm up, and if she's used to wearing thin little cotton dresses and sandals, she'll insist on wearing them up until the first day of winter because heavier, warmer clothes just don't feel right. She may take a week to feel comfortable with that new, short haircut she got because her scalp feels tingly and different for a long time.

The confusion caused by sensory issues makes babies and toddlers resistant to transitions. They need a lot of preparation before changing activities, and they need a lot of external structure, such as a more rigid schedule. They also tend to be more anxious and sensitive than other children, and are often reluctant to try new activities, but then may love the activity once they’re coaxed into it. The key is to gently introduce a new sensory activity in a pleasant or playful way. Persuade the toddler to fingerpaint, to offer her a smock and a paintbrush and the chance to wash her hands every thirty seconds if that will help her to do this type of important sensory exploration.

Pushing her, or berating her, will just make her more anxious and uncomfortable. Try to make new sensory activities fun.

Also, we expect babies to be inconsistent and a bit of a mystery, so it can be difficult for a new parent of a baby with sensory issues to acknowledge her gut instinct that something is “off” with her baby. Her concerns are likely to be dismissed by others, from her husband to her pediatrician to her mother and sisters, and well-meaning friends who have more experience with babies. The parents most likely to be encouraged to listen to their instincts about their child’s sensory differences are either parents of other babies who were much easier to deal with (less fussy, less inconsistent in their sleeping and eating habits, and so on), or parents of babies who were adopted from overseas orphanages, born prematurely, or experienced birth trauma or medical interventions shortly after birth. This is because the experts expect some difficulties in these situations. Often, the NICU will send them home with instructions about what unusual behaviors to look for, or the adoption agency will educate them about sensory issues and developmental delays.

But it’s important for parents to realize that if they feel there’s something different, or just not right about their child, they shouldn’t dismiss that impression. The more you learn about sensory issues, the more you’ll start to understand why you instinctively hug and massage your child in a crowded room before letting him down to the floor to play with the other kids, or why you put a snug cap on her head when she’s getting antsy. One mom I met swore that her toddler, who it turned out had visual processing issues, behaved worse on days when he wore red or orange shirts, and better on days when he wore less intense colors.

If you have the impression that your child is experiencing the world differently, then that’s probably what’s happening.

My interview with Nancy continues tomorrow. In the meantime, check out the Sensory Smarts website for more info!