Have you heard of a sensory diet? It has nothing to do with your child’s nutrition, but is a powerful tool for kids with sensory needs big and small to improve their attention, learning, communication, and more…
I got a text from my sister the other day that said, “I need to talk to you about Rhett’s sleep. I heard a sensory diet might help?”
Her 4 year old son has a very difficult time going to sleep. He seems to have endless energy and even if they shut the door and put him to bed, he’ll stay up, content to jump on his bed in a dark room for hours.
This is a huge source of daily stress for her and her husband. It affects the time they have together, the routine of their other child, and leaves them both exhausted. I also know her son has sensory “issues” or needs that he exhibits in other areas of his life…
He’s very active, always running and climbing. He’s a very picky eater and can go for very long periods of time without eating. Sometimes he loves sounds and music, other times it will cause a meltdown. He also needs quiet time throughout the day with little to no stimulation.
While I had been talking to her about a sensory diet for the last year, I never had used the term because it usually sounds complicated, and it doesn’t have to be.
Of course, I knew a sensory diet would absolutely help him. If, it was the right type of sensory diet.
A Sensory Diet Isn’t About The Food They Eat
Before I could even start to explain in more detail about how to set up a sensory diet for her son though, she started telling me all about his picky eating again. I realized she thought that a sensory diet was about what food her son ate.
Like a literal diet.
Since eating is another source of stress at the moment, she was relieved when I told her that a sensory diet was a play on words, it wasn’t about nutrition!
Of course, sensory diets can help kids with extreme picky eating too, if the reason for that picky eating is sensory based. But, not in the way she was imagining.
What is a Sensory Diet, Exactly?
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what a sensory diet actually is. So, let’s clear that up!
A sensory diet is providing your child with the sensations they need throughout the day so that their sensory system is regulated or balanced.
Kids that have sensory issues, differences, or needs are often focused on getting more of or avoiding particular types of sensations or sensory input. When their brain is in that seeking or avoiding mode, it can’t focus on other things.
What those “things” are varies from child to child. For one child, it could be that they aren’t following directions well and thus having a hard time learning at school.
For another child, it could be that they are rough, wild, and have difficulty playing with peers. Yet, for another, it could mean that they’re sensitive and scared to be around other children or in busy environments.
A sensory diet, when used the right way, can help a child get their sensory needs met, which frees up their attention so they can play with peers, follow directions, learn, eat, sleep, and more!
Two Different Types of Sensory Diets: Option 1
There’s no doubting sensory diets are powerful. Lots of occupational therapists like myself suggest them. But, there are two different ways to approach a sensory diet:
Sensory Diet Option 1: Extremely detailed, scheduled, and structured. This is just one example of what this type of sensory diet would look like on a given day:
8 am: Jump on trampoline for 15 minutes
8:30 am: Wear weighted vest while eating breakfast
9:00 am: Joint compressions and brush teeth with an electric toothbrush
11 am: Swing for 30 minutes
12:00 pm: Wear weighted vest while eating lunch
12:30 pm: Joint compressions
1:00 pm: Sit in rocking chair before nap with white noise machine on
3:00 pm: Jump on trampoline for 15 minutes
3:30 pm: Play in a sensory bin
4:00 pm: Quiet time with dim lights in bedroom
5:00 pm: Wear weighted vest while eating dinner
6:00 pm: Ride scooter board
7:00 pm: Take a warm bath with lavender essential oil
8:00 pm: Wear a body sock or weighted blanket before bed
As you can see, there are a lot of activities to fit into your day with this type of sensory diet. It’s almost like a checklist. Typically, families using this type of sensory diet have either found a sample online they’re trying to replicate in hope that it works as well for their kid.
But, sensory diets are highly specific to each child.
Or, an OT has prescribed them a detailed itinerary of how to use the activities and when. This usually comes with the best intentions, as the therapist has identified challenging times during the day and also has a deep understanding of the child’s sensory needs.
But, the vast majority of families find this overwhelming and confusing. They often wonder why their child needs to jump on the trampoline or keep wearing a weighted vest. They want to see their child overcome the challenges they’re experiencing because of sensory processing, so they try to persevere.
Often times, when a sensory diet is treated like a strict schedule, there are battles over getting the child to use certain tools like a sensory bin or scooter board. The child may resist participation at all.
Can you guess what happens next? The family understandably stops using a sensory diet.
Sensory Diet Option 2: A Sensory Solution
For most families, the second option for a sensory diet, what I like to call a sensory-solution, is much more effective. Instead of following something that worked for someone else, you learn what your child’s specific sensory needs are. Then you decide, or get guidance, on how often your child needs specific activities.
Better yet is to find ways to naturally create the opportunities for sensory activities in your existing routine.
For example, if your child melts down after she comes home from school (a common occurrence for sensory kids) and you know she loves movement and pressure (the vestibular and proprioceptive senses), then you might bring her bike to the bus stop so she can ride it home.
The sensations she received in that 5 minutes could be enough to balance her system and prevent the meltdown.
That’s using a sensory diet, or a sensory-solution, easily.
In my sisters case, I was able to recommend some specific activities for her because I’ve been around my nephew enough to know some of his sensory needs.
I suggested that she start with a routine 2 hours before bed, eliminating any electronics because they’re probably over-stimulating him. That one strategy in and of itself is implementing a sensory diet.
I have a feeling he’s going to need more than that though, so in his case, they’re going to try using the mini trampoline he loves right in their living room. But, they have to be careful because sometimes this winds him up more. To combat that, they’re going to count and use some deep pressure on his arms, by tugging down gently.
Then, they’ll dim the lights and offer a choice between reading a story or playing in a dry sensory bin, both of which tend to be calming for him.
After that, they’ll brush teeth, put pajamas on, and offer a weighted blanket.
As I gave these suggestions for a sensory diet to help with sleep, I also stressed to my sister that it’s critical to be flexible and watch how he’s responding. If something is upsetting him or getting him more alert, then stop.
The Sensory Diet That Meets Your Child’s Unique Needs
When you create a sensory diet this way, it could include just a few tweaks to your schedule for 1-2 challenging times during the day, or it could mean activities throughout the day.
It will evolve over time.
There’s no set formula.
It’s all about what your child needs that day. Sometimes you’ll have predictable activities that you do daily (like jumping on the bed or a trampoline before bed), and other times, it will vary.
As you begin to think about how a sensory diet can be used in your home, you’ll want to plan for:
1. Trying to prevent meltdowns, tantrums, difficulty going to sleep, poor attention, etc. BEFORE it happens. That’s when you’ll provide the sensory activities that regulate them, or bring their system back into balance.
Both the examples above of riding a bike home or having a sensory bedtime routine fall into pre-planning your child’s sensory diet because you already know these are challenges for them on a daily basis.
2. Some sensory tools and strategies you can use when there’s an unexpected challenge. Difficulty following directions or a tantrum can pop up at any time. Think about a game plan of what types of sensory activities or sensations you can give your child when this happens.
Again, this will vary from child to child and day to day. That’s why I like to think of it as having a sensory tool bag. You can check out these specific tools. Try them and see how your child responds. But, also see the giant list of sensory diet activities:
One important note is that while you’ll never want to force your child to participate in any sensory activities, part of a sensory diet can be helping them overcome any sensory sensitivities they may have, particularly related to their tactile or vestibular senses.
That means if you’re child hates getting messy or riding swings, you help them take small steps towards desensitizing as part of their sensory diet.
Make a Sensory Solution That Works for Your Family
You have some great examples of sensory diets, but the question is how do you create a sensory diet that works for your child?
To make sure you avoid the over-scheduled and rigorous sensory diet that most parents give up on (option 1 above), I have 4 simple, but powerful, steps for you to follow.:
Step 1: Target the Behavior
Just like my sister who didn’t realize that her son’s sleep could be helped by sensory tools, we often don’t even realize that the challenge our kid is facing is sensory based, or that sensory strategies could help. That’s why the first step is to simply start looking at the times of day that are hard for you child.
These are usually the times of day that are hard for YOU too!
It could be anything from a trip to Target to mealtimes to when you’re transitioning between activities. Start paying attention, you’ll be surprised what you notice.
Step 2: Identify the Sense
Next, you’ll want to look at that behavior and ask yourself if it’s because of one of their senses. For instance, if your child is crying in Target and you notice they keep grabbing their eyes, you’d ask yourself if it’s related to their vision sense.
Keep in mind we have 7 different senses:
Making this connection is a key step!
Step 3: Support the Sense
In the case of too bright lights, you might have your child wear a hat with a wide brim or sunglasses in the store. Or, if it can be arranged, you might go without him. Or, you might do some other sensory activities before you go to Target that help calm him. You might also make sure you don’t spend too long in the store.
And, if those are possible solutions, what works best will depend on your specific situation. For each challenge that kids face, there’s a whole host of possible strategies and tools to use in a sensory diet.
Step 4: Make a plan
Now that you know where the difficulty is and how you can help your child overcome it, make a plan to prevent it or have a plan in place in case you’re somewhere bright unexpectedly.
Keeping with our too bright lights example, you could carry a hat in your purse or make sure you have one every time you go to a store!
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 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.