Learn how to make sense out of sensory issues in babies! And, get specific tips for helping support babies with sensory issues so that together, you can overcome and manage the signs and symptoms.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I dreamed about my to-be son having my blue eyes and his father’s sense of humor. But, because I was a pediatric OT, I often let my mind wonder if he would have any challenges, as I knew there were many that any child could face.
This is common, right? It seems our parental worrying kicks in as soon as we know we’re pregnant, but there’s one challenge that never crosses most parents mind: sensory issues in babies.
Although many toddlers, children, and even adults can have sensory needs or “issues” for one reason or another, it’s not exactly a mainstream topic. Of course, I think it should be because it affects so many. Understanding sensory issues in babies or any child is a huge step forward in knowing how to help them.
Wait, What are Sensory Issues, Really?
To be honest, I don’t really love the word “issues,” because it implies something bad, and in a lot of cases, sensory needs, as I prefer to call them, can be addressed with little effort. But, let’s back up a minute and get clear about what sensory issues actually are.
In a very simplistic explanation, for an issue that can be very complex, sensory issues are when a baby, child, or adult is perceiving some sensations as uncomfortable or even painful. These sensations could be from touching/seeing/smelling/hearing/tasting something or moving a certain way. This is usually described as a sensory sensitivity.
At the same time, individuals may not seem to perceive sensations well at all, which causes them to seek them out more. It’s like they can’t get enough. In this case, an individual may want to touch/see/smell/hear/taste/move excessively. Head over to our What is Sensory guide to learn more!
Babies with Sensory Issues… Is it Real?
It’s tempting to think that this particular challenge couldn’t affect a baby, but the truth is, many babies are experiencing sensory issues, it can just be a little harder to pick up on because they can’t tell us that something they’re experiencing is uncomfortable or that they like rocking back and forth all the time.
Instead, they typically just cry because their needs aren’t being met, and babies cry for everything else they’re trying to communicate as well. It can be easy to miss.
Or, sometimes it isn’t tears, but an avoidance. I remember sharing a video on our fb page that was going viral of a baby that was quickly raising their legs high in the air every time her father tried to sit her in the grass. She was calm as could be, but she wasn’t touching that grass. The father was commenting that she didn’t like grass, and their were thousands of laughing emoji’s posted from people around the world watching.
The video was funny, but as I watched, I knew that very few were realizing that this quirky behavior was pointing to a sensory issue.
The sensory system, which helps us interpret all of the sensations we have coming in throughout the day through our five senses: hearing, taste, smell, sight, and touch, plus two additional senses: vestibular (our sense of movement) and proprioception (our sense of body awareness), has to sort through what’s important and what’s not.
When the sensory system isn’t working optimally is when the brain thinks some sensations are too strong or aren’t strong enough, and that’s when we see sensory issues display themselves, even in babies.
And, this important system is one of the very last to fully develop in utero, which is why it’s common for babies born prematurely to have sensory issues. It’s also common for babies with various diagnoses.
Do Babies with Sensory Issues Need a Diagnosis?
But, what if your baby has no known or suspected diagnosis and you think there are sensory issues, do they need their own diagnosis?
The answer is a definite no, at least not yet.
Because the sensory system continues to develop throughout the first year of life and because there are lots of therapeutic activities you can do to actually improve the way a babies sensory system works, it’s impossible to say at such a young age if a baby with sensory issues needs a diagnosis, or if it’s even a significant problem.
However, if sensory issues persist into childhood and have a significant impact on a kid’s life, it’s possible that they may receive a Sensory Processing Disorder diagnoses. But, at the earliest, this diagnosis isn’t given until three years old. Children with Autism and ADHD, in many cases, have sensory issues as well and neither of these diagnoses are given until 2-5 years of age.
That doesn’t mean that if a child or baby with sensory issues will or should have a diagnosis at any point, because most of us have some sort of sensory issues or preferences.
For instance, my second son Isaac loves to jump, be wild, and hated different textures of food as a baby or toddler. Some of those preferences have changed, and other’s don’t significantly impact his life, although I’m well aware that he often needs to experience some sensations (and he is too!)
Sensory Issues in Babies to Look Out for…
I think what’s important for babies with sensory issues is that we know what to look for, because when we identify some of the odd, unusual, or strange things we see them doing as related to their sensory processing, it helps us help them. So, what are some of the common sensory issues in babies?
Here’s a list of some of the most common signs, but keep in mind this list does not include every single option:
- Flips out when they’re in a swing (vestibular sensitivity)
- Cries when being carried down the steps (vestibular sensitivity)
- Doesn’t like fast movements or being held up in the air (vestibular sensitivity)
- Prefers to be held tight to your chest (proprioception seeking)
- Gets very fussy with bouncing or rocking (vestibular sensitivity)
- Is only content when they are swung fast, being rocked, or bounced (vestibular seeking)
- Hates getting messy and avoids touching any of their food (oral sensitivity)
- Refuses or gags at the sight or small taste of finger foods, which is different than trying to eat a piece of food and gagging (oral sensitivity)
- Will only accept a certain texture of foods, such as purees only, crunchy foods only, etc. (oral sensitivity)
- Won’t put feet in the grass (tactile sensitivity)
- Doesn’t like sitting in sand (tactile sensitivity)
- Cries when bright lights are on (Vision sensitivity)
- Needs to be swaddled in tight blankets frequently, past the first 3-4 months (Proprioceptive seeking)
When looking through this list, it may be tempting to think your baby has many of these signs. While that’s possible, I’d ask you to only consider reactions that you are seeing often and consistently.
How to Help Babies with Sensory Issues
At this point, you may still be wondering if your baby is displaying any sensory issues. If that’s the case, the very first step that I’d recommend is experimenting. After looking through the list above, you should have some suspicions about possible triggers for your baby’s sensory issues. For instance, if you suspect that your baby doesn’t like to use the baby swing, the next time you try to use the swing, put it on very slow and be ready to pull them out immediately.
If you see that they do get upset, it’s a sign that they’re sensitive to the movement. In this case, I’d ask myself, “Do I see them sensitive to movement in any other areas of life?” Maybe while driving, walking down the stairs, or simply being rocked in my arms?
Asking these questions and using some trial and error will help you narrow down what could or could not be a sensory issue for your baby. To recap, tip #1 is to:
Experiment cautiously with different activities/sensations and watch closely for babies reaction.
In this example, when you notice your baby is upset in the swing, you’ll want to avoid the swing for a little while, but that doesn’t mean we want to stop encouraging them to tolerate the movement.
This is especially important for babies sensitive to movement or touching different textures, because doing so actually improves their sensory processing and development. Of course, when it comes to sensory issues we NEVER want to force it. It can be tempting to think that making them sit in the sand will help them get over their sensitivity, but the truth is it could make it worse.
That means tip #2 is to:
Never force babies to experience sensations they seem to not like or enjoy. Help them to gradually learn how to tolerate over time.
I’ll give you an example of how this plays out. I’ve worked with lots of babies that hate sitting or walking barefoot in the grass. To help them get over this, I would sit them on a towel, as small as they could tolerate, so they weren’t in the grass, but were very close to it. Then, I’d demonstrate touching the grass slowly and encourage them to repeat.
Next, I might drop a ball into the grass next to them so they have to scoop it out. I’d continue with trying to get them to put one foot in the grass, and then two. You get the idea!
Progressing your baby through these steps could take weeks. Patience and consistently trying a little more on a regular basis can have a huge impact.
Deep pressure is your friend
Another strategy you can use to help your baby with any potential sensory issues is to hold them firm and tight, almost like you’re giving them a hug when they do seem to be upset or uncomfortable from a sensory sensation. In the therapy world, this is called deep pressure and in general, it’s very calming and helps babies feel secure.
You can also give your baby deep pressure through massage, but in a heightened moment it likely won’t be effective.
Getting more help.
If it seems like your baby does have significant sensory issues, especially in the feeding department, it’s completely appropriate and recommended to get an evaluation. For feeding concerns, you’ll want a feeding therapy evaluation, request a therapist with sensory processing experience if you suspect this is the cause of the feeding problems.
For other sensory issues in babies, actual sensory integration therapy may not be appropriate until they are a little older, but talk to your doctor about your concerns.
Lastly, grab our 21 Sensory Red Flags free printable. This will help you identify some common, and often overlooked sensory signs in toddlers and children. Get the free printable here.
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Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 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.