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Feeding the Sensory System Early

When it comes to infants, most people just cannot help but love the pudgy rolls of fat on their legs and arms, the way that they smile and coo, or how they can just cuddle up on your chest. They just seem to put a smile on your face because babies are just cute!

But as parents, therapists, and family members, we often are concerned about what we are doing and whether or not it is "right" for the baby. There is so much information out there these days...from how to put them to sleep, to when to introduce them to foods and in what order, to when they should be achieving each milestone. Sometimes, it is enough to drive us crazy. But an underlying area of concern that feeds into all of the above-mentioned areas is a happy and healthy sensory system. And sometimes that one is overlooked. You cannot have a child sleep properly, tolerate the foods we introduce or use their body the way he or she is supposed to with an underdeveloped sensory system.

It is important to develop a proper sensory system, not just for a child's tolerance to stimuli, but a well-balanced sensory system plays a key role in the motor development of a child. It will be impossible to cover the whole sensory system development in great detail in this newsletter, but use it as a starting to point for making sure you are not overlooking some major areas. Sensory concerns in children are more than just a child hating to get his hands dirty or refusing to wear certain clothes.

A well-balanced system helps with an infant's tolerance to his or her environment, interaction with toys and people, ability to sleep according to the recommended schedules, and feed properly.

It should be noted that all children do develop differently, so as with any area of development, there is no cookie-cutter recipe. In addition, it is very important to be able to read the cues of your child, especially in terms of over-stimulation. An infant's tolerance to one particular stimuli or activity is short. So, when he or she begins to get fussy, it may be time to change what you are doing. Even if they do not initially enjoy the input, it is still okay to continue introducing them to it in short spurts, for example, when trying to do activities on the tummy. Continued introduction to the input will help them develop tolerance and in time allow them to integrate it into their sensory development.

For newborns and infants, so much of what we do naturally to take care of them is helping to feed their sensory systems. Holding them close to cuddle and swaddling them provides deep proprioceptive input, while gently rocking or swaying them is giving them the vestibular input that they crave. Oral input is provided on a regular basis as they partake in frequent feedings and they as explore their hands and toys with their mouths. Tactile input is provided every time you touch your baby, so take the time to enjoy the bare baby skin during diaper changes and bath time.

Introduce them to the various textures of toys and fabrics. Your ongoing talking or singing to them provides them with excellent auditory input. And the introduction of your face, simple toys and books helps give them natural visual input. When it comes to auditory and visual input, we need to be conscious of how much we are throwing at them. If we have them in their swing with 4 or 5 toys attached, the music going and the television on in the background while grandpa is having a loud conversation at the kitchen table and grandma is in your child's face, your child may shut down or get over stimulated and begin to cry. So, more is not always better in terms of sensory input. And we need to think about what is going on in the background, not just what is strictly being provided to the child.

On the flip side, if you place your child in a stabilize seat, with no toys or interaction with you, and allow them to stare at a white wall, then you providing very little input to his or her sensory system.

As your infant begins to grow you will be able to see how he or she uses a balanced sensory system to interact with the environment. The child with a well-developing sensory system will naturally try to explore with movement, enjoy looking at books and toys with smiles and giggles, want to be snuggled and held, and enjoy moving to solid foods. Also, these children will tolerate and enjoy the introduction of new things. This is all prefaced with the fact that there is no other underlying concerns and take into account your child's personality. But for the child who, after introduction to a particular input in various ways, still does not tolerate the input by always becoming over-stimulated or shutting down, then you may need to seek out some help with an occupational therapy evaluation.

So, now as you enjoy time with those little bundles of joy in your life, or as a therapist you are trying to help parents through developing the sensory system of their child, take the time to look at some of those natural activities and understand the importance the sensory system plays during an infant's early development.

Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L
Reprinted with permission from Southpaw’s Paw Print newsletter,


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