The ultimate guide to sensory diets that includes a sensory diet template PDF, powerful sensory diet examples, and 4 steps to make your own sensory diet today!
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Are you hearing about a sensory diet for the first time? Wondering how to create a sensory diet for your child?
While it may seem complicated, as an occupational therapist I’m here to break it all down into something that you understand, one step at a time.
Consider this PDF template and article your ultimate guide to:
- What is a sensory diet?
- The types of sensory issues a sensory diet helps
- How to create a sensory diet for your own kid with our template!
- Powerful real-life sensory diet examples
While you may be tempted to scroll past all the details and head right to the printable, I encourage you to read through the 4 simple steps and sensory diet examples for how to incorporate a sensory diet into your kid’s everyday routine.
What is a Sensory Diet?
The term sensory diet can sound overwhelming and time consuming, but it doesn’t have to be.
A sensory diet is a way of providing or decreasing sensory input through specific activities and supports to help a child stay regulated throughout the day.
These activities and supports are chosen based on the child’s unique sensory processing needs, and ultimately help a child calm down and focus so they can participate in age appropriate activities.
If a child is dysregulated, meaning their sensory system is disorganized, then kids may struggle to complete activities that are expected of them like learning, playing, socializing, getting dressed, brushing teeth, etc.
Types of Sensory Issues for a Sensory Diet
There are a variety of sensory issues, or needs, that kids cause dysregulation.
Some kids have a high threshold for sensory input, so they look for opportunities to experience sensations such as running, jumping, crashing, smelling, licking, etc. These kids are often referred to as sensory seekers.
For others, they have a low threshold, and their environment is constantly giving them too many sensations. They become overstimulated, and thus dysregulated from textures of clothing, smells, lights, movement, etc.
These kids have sensory sensitivities and are often called avoiders.
And, some kids don’t seem to register much of any sensory input, as a result they are lethargic and unfocused. These kids have what’s called low registration.
A Sensory Diet May Change from Day to Day
The tricky part is that kids can fluctuate among states of calm, seeking or avoidance depending on factors like the environment they are in, how well they slept, or what kind of day they’re having.
For this reason, it’s important that a sensory diet is fluid and adaptable to the changing preferences and needs of your child on a day to day basis.
While sensory diets are specific to each child, they all have the same goals: to regulate the sensory system, prevent meltdowns, improve focus and attention, and/or to increase your child’s tolerance to the sensations they experience in their environment.
Who Needs a Sensory Diet?
If you’re reading this, you likely have a child who is showing signs of sensory processing issues. Sensory issues can be mild or severe, and because of that you can expect 3 different categories of kids to benefit from a sensory diet:
1. Children with sensory issues but no diagnosis.
Oftentimes these children show behaviors that aren’t “significant” enough to put a label or diagnosis on them, and many will dismiss them for personality traits.
Sometimes people call these kids: hyperactive, wild, highly sensitive, intense or strong-willed. When I hear these descriptions, I can usually bet that sensory processing is at least partially to blame and using a sensory diet can diminish or even eliminate these challenging behaviors.
2. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
While most, if not all kids, can benefit from sensory activities, if your child does have a SPD diagnosis then a sensory diet is a tremendously helpful tool because they’re sensory needs are impacting their life in significant ways.
Check out these 33 signs of Sensory Processing Disorder to see if your kid might fall into this category.
3. Children with Autism and ADHD
Kids with ASD and ADHD often have sensory issues that often lead to dysregulation. If unchecked this sensory dysregulation can result in a meltdown. Since most kids with Autism and as many as 40% of kids with ADHD have known sensory needs, a sensory diet can be an invaluable tool to improve attention, sleep, socialization, and even eating.
How to Create a Sensory Diet with the PDF Template
One of the biggest mistakes I see parents make with a sensory diet is that they randomly use any sensory activity during the day without knowing why.
While this PDF sensory diet template is made for you to use as a tool, it will still require a bit of brainstorming to determine what exactly your child needs to help them regulate..
I have 4 quick steps for you to work through so that when you print out your sensory diet template you are confident with how (and, why) you’re filling it out.
In the next section, I share some sensory diet examples so you can see exactly how I work through these steps in my home (yes, I have a sensory kid) and when I’m helping other parents.
Sensory Diet Step #1: Write down when your is having a hard time
Make a list of the times of day or the environments that your child experiences challenges or seems to be seeking sensory input.
Don’t overthink this, just grab a piece of paper and start writing out the times your child is tantruming, having difficulty, overwhelming you, or is confusing you with their actions.
Sometimes sensory kids have unusual behaviors to get their sensory needs met (like crossing their fingers for seemingly no reason, pulling their hair, or biting their toenails). Write down anything that comes to mind!
Sensory Diet Step #2: Link challenges to sensory issues
Look at your list and check off anything that is caused by their sensory needs or you feel could be helped by sensory activities.
Aren’t sure? Here are some examples of common sensory issues. But, please note, this is not a complete list, there are sooo many sensory needs and behaviors:
- Difficulty waking up or getting out of bed in the morning
- Particular about the type of clothing they wear
- Anxious before school or doing a different activity
- Won’t sit still at the table during meals
- Tantrums when it’s time to run an errand
- Flips out in the store for seemingly no reason or because of the lights, sounds, and environment in general
- Very rough in their play with siblings, parents, and other children*
- Overly shy and awkward in public or on play dates
- Refuses to leave the house
- Climbs furniture unsafely*
- Obsessed with swinging and/or spinning*
- Hates getting messy
- Touches everything and gets overly messy, seeming not notice*
- Licks everything*
- Gags at new or different foods on their plate or even on the table for meals
- Stares at spinning objects like a ceiling fan
- Difficulty paying attention in school or during structured activities
- Completely can’t stand bright lights
- Loses it with loud noises
- Fearful of climbing playground equipment, the stairs, or getting on a swing
- Refuses to have teeth brushed
- Can’t seem to settle down to go to sleep
- Bites people of objects for seemingly no reason or when they are excited or upset*
- Has a hard time sleeping through the night
- Chews on toys, pencil tops, and other objects frequently*
- Smells everything*
*Indicates your child is seeking, or looking for, more sensory input. See more sensory red flags.
Sensory Diet Step #3: Use sensory activities or supports
Choose sensory diet activities to try and offer before you know your child’s typical struggles (i.e.: before bed, transitioning between activities, etc.) Or, you can use the sensory activities and supports as needs pop up. You definitely won’t be able to predict them all.
It may even be several trial and error attempts before locking a plan into place.
But I promise it will be worth it!
The most important thing is that you offer an activity as part of your routine because you know it’s a challenging area for your child OR you give an activity/support when you see they need it.
In either instance, you really want to try and think about what your child’s “need” is and then match an activity that might help. It isn’t totally random. We will get into some examples in just a minute.
To help you narrow down what activities your child might benefit from, I have a few shortcuts:
- 100+ Sensory Diet Activities – The best overall list because it’s filled with and is organized by activities that are calming and those that help your child focus.
- Oral Sensory Processing Activities – Both for kids that love chewing, licking, mouthing everything, or ones that refuse to do any of those things.
- Powerful Proprioceptive Activities
- Vestibular Activities
- Sensory Seeking Activities – Perfect for “wild” or rough kids
- How to Create a Sensory Tent – A great sensory diet activity that is incredibly helpful for kids to retreat to when they’re overstimulated
- Sensory Diet Activities for the Classroom
- Tactile Activities
- Messy Play Ideas
- How to Help Your Child Stay Seated at the Table
- Sensory Tricks for Sleeping
Some kids benefit from using sensory diet cards, which are a visual image or graphic of various sensory diet activities. To make your child a proactive participant in their sensory diet you can offer them 2-3 sensory diet cards and let them choose which activity would be helpful.
Learn more about using sensory diet cards and check out my set of 60 my favorite (and most powerful) sensory diet activities.
Sensory Diet Step #4: Evaluate
This last step is to observe how your child responds to the sensory activities that you offer.
Remember that the whole point of a sensory diet is to improve their focus, calm them, or meet their needs.
If the activity wasn’t what they needed or didn’t “work” for any number of reasons, it doesn’t mean it was a failure. That same activity may work tomorrow. Offer it or suggest it at least 3-4 times before you abandon it.
But, NEVER force any sensory diet activity.
While it’s important to be open to offering activities again, you also want to look for what your child likes and is gravitating towards.
If you notice that jumping down the stairs in the morning helps them sit better for breakfast, that’s awesome, you just created a sensory diet. Definitely try that again.
Some kids will want to repeat the same thing everyday and others may not even need it day in and day out. Or, they want to have a variety of activities they can cycle between.
When you use the template, think of it as a sensory diet worksheet that might be ever-changing and flexible!
Awesome Sensory Diet Examples
Now that you understand what a sensory diet is, who it is for, and how to make one, it’s finally time to see some of that in action.
While I can’t possibly cover every possible situation, use these sensory diet examples to inspire how you create your child’s sensory diet using the template. A lot of these examples are from my own home or from kids that I’ve worked with:
- A little girl has a hard time going upstairs for bed and often tantrums. Besides giving her reminders about the approaching bedtime, her family gives her a piggyback ride upstairs, jumping and stomping all the way. She’s calmer because she got vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile input.
- A boy comes home from school and is overstimulated and irritable. His mom gives him a cold drink through a straw, puts on relaxing music, and gives him some time in his sensory tent before starting homework.
Check out more examples of an after school routine.
- When my son was younger, he was very sensitive to different textures and only ate a small variety of foods. To help him get more comfortable with different textures, he played in different sensory bins a couple times a week, which decreased his sensitivity to texture and helped him eat new foods.
- A toddler can’t stand getting his toenails cut so his mom gives him time on a swing first, because he loves that and it helps calm him. Then she holds him tightly in her lap while he holds a weighted lap pillow for comfort and deep pressure input.
- A school aged girl struggles to sit still in school and focus throughout the day. Her dad makes sure she has 5 minutes to jump on a small trampoline in the house before she leaves. Then she rides her bike to the bus stop and has a stretchy band around her chair at school that she can kick when she feels like she needs to move and can’t.
- A boy is really nervous going to daycare every day. To help him, he carries a stress ball in his pocket that he can squeeze whenever he needs to. He also has crunchy foods in his lunch, which help him stay calm, as well.
- My son is a sensory seeker and loves to play rough. Throughout our normal daily interactions, I make an effort to give him big deep hugs if he walks by I rough house with him for a minute or two. It isn’t scheduled into our day at any specific time.
- A girl that is really active and loves to swing has access to a scooter board and rocking toy whenever she needs it. She doesn’t use it everyday, but she knows where to find it and how to use it when she does feel the need.
- A toddler can’t seem to fall asleep every night. To help prepare him for sleep, the parents keep lights dim, read stories while snuggling in a rocking chair, and give a massage with lavender scented lotion. He falls asleep watching a slow changing night light. (We have one like this, it’s one of my favorites.)
- A child hates the bright light and noises in large stores. His family keeps a bag in the car with some headphones, sunglasses, and some small toys he can fidget with in the store.
- A boy won’t climb or swing on anything at the playground. Once or twice a week his mom sets up some obstacles with couch pillows for him to crawl over in the house. They also take toys to the playground and play on the steps that go up to the low slide, slowly getting closer to the top over time.
Are you starting to see how you can use a sensory diet to help your child through these examples? If you have any questions about your situation, ask us in the comments!
The Sensory Diet Template: Free Printable PDF
Here it is, the final piece to creating a sensory diet for your child. This worksheet, which includes sensory diet activities is a visual tool to help you put what you just learned into action!
Click here and we’ll send this printable right to your email so you have it download, save, or print.
Take creating and fine tuning your child’s sensory diet it one step at a time..
Once you have several options you know they like, you can even offer choices to them when you know they need a sensory diet activity.
I’ll say to my son, “Hey, it’s not safe to run around the house right now. Would you like to jump on the trampoline or ride the scooter board in the hallway?”
Kids love choices and they usually know how to meet their sensory needs better than we do when we give them the chance.
What challenge is your child facing? What activities are you going to use to help them, as you create your own sensory diet? Tell me in the comments, and we can all learn from each other.
Hearing other people’s examples is one of the most powerful ways we can learn!
More Sensory Ideas and Tips
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 18 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.