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.
More for Babies
The Best High Calorie Foods for Babies
Sensory Tricks to Help Your Kid Fall Asleep Fast!
What You Need to Know About Baby Gagging (+ Expert Tips)
8 Secret Strategies for Sensory Issues with Food
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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.
I am a COTA and a first time mom. Having a knowledge of SPD and ADHD etc and having worked with children with these, I feel like I am constantly assessing everything my little one does. He is 6 months old and already been “labeled” by his pediatrician as a high needs baby. I am beginning to wonder about possible sensory seeking behaviors or ADHD (both along with autism run in the family). However, as a first time mom I’m trying to determine what is normal baby behavior vs possible SPD or ADHD tendencies. My little guy was born 3 weeks early, emergency c section, and was LBW. He has always hated being swaddled. He does not like to be confined in any way. He doesn’t like being in a car seat and will scream the entire ride. He has also been a very poor sleeper, cannot self sooth. He is still currently co sleeping. He is extremely restless at night and difficult to put to sleep. We have to do a lot of walking, rocking, bouncing with him on exercise ball etc. He has to have constant attention and has a difficult time just playing by himself. He is constantly what I call ” in motion”, is hardly ever still. He loves to be thrown in the air, spun around and hung upside down. He is also from birth been an extremely fussy baby.
I would appreciate any advice or insight.
Hi there! Thanks for reaching out and sharing your story with us- sounds like it’s been quite the journey for you and your little one! We understand your concerns and you are definitely not alone. Based off everything you said, it could possibly be related to something- whether that’s SPD, ADHD, etc. However, it’s often too early to tell at this age, as their sensory system is still developing. And with babies, they can act upset/fussy for a number of reasons. Check out this post about early intervention for more information! Hope that helps!
My son is 18 months old and he is a lockdown baby (as we call it). He doesnt like shops – any shops in fact. The moment we enter a shop while he is in a pram i.e bakery, restaurant, clothing or supermarket, he starts crying and very uncomfortable. even though I engage with him during i.e talking, showing him what we need to buy or buying etc, I still need to hold his hands to make him calm and leave the shop immediately after 5 mins probably, as it makes us quite distressed. I am not sure if it is the lights, or people or the fact that he is in the pram and needs a bit ressurance, I would like to have your opinion on it. He is also delayed in speech development , hence I am waiting to hear back from the specialist for him to be assessed, but it would be good to understand what might be the issue and what is best way to approach it. Thanks a lot
Thanks for reaching out! Sensory sensitivities can be difficult, but great job with what you’re already doing and with the steps you’re already taking- especially with getting him assessed by a specialist! In the meantime, try giving him a fidget to play with or a soft toy to hold onto. He could potentially use these items as a coping strategy when in public places with a lot of sensory triggers. You can check out our free workshop where you will learn all about sensory needs and it’ll help you figure out which of the senses your son might be struggling with! Save your seat here!
I had a question about babies actually enjoying sensory input. Like what’s normal vs what’s not. My soon to be 9 month old loves touching different textures. From what I read I always thought this was part of exploration and discovery for them. She loves pulling our shag rug, or raking through the short carpet in her room and seeing the pattern change. She also likes to relax and self soothe by rubbing a soft blanket along her cheek or nose.
I never thought anything of this until someone mentioned it as odd and sensory seeking being related to autism. But she plays normally with toys etc. So it’s not like she sits doing these for hours on end. It just kind of got to me when someone mentioned it. Should I be concerned? Thanks for any advice!
Thanks for reaching out! Lots of babies like all different textures, noises and sensations. It’s great for them to explore! Rubbing a soft blanket on a cheek is also a really common first step to self-soothing. While children with autism often have a sensory component, interest in sensory play is common in all babies. It is not necessarily an indication of something like autism. A red flag for autism would be reduced eye contact and social participation, this is something that would be noticed as a baby/toddler starts to get a little older. I hope that helps answer your question!
I recently discovered my son is extremely aversive to sticky creamy textured foods, like yoghurt he literally doesn’t touch it and if he does tries to get it off ASAP and then cries hysterically , the same happened with a cake smash shoot we planned for him absolutely hated icing didn’t even go close.. does it sound a sensory issue and can you suggest some activities to help him get used to such texture. I just loved the content in your website and Instagram, it’s very helpful and insightful.
Thanks for reaching out! That is so common. Some great activities are messy play, like finger paints, shaving cream, soapy bubbles and even play with foods like pudding or yogurt can be helpful. You can provide a wet washcloth for your little one to use as needed. It can also be helpful to provide utensils (like a spoon or paint brush) to use to start the play off, so he doesn’t have to stick his hands in right away. I hope that helps!
My almost 6 year old son (with ASD) is an extreme sensory seeker, and it began in the womb! He would move up to 23 hours a day, not just gentle kicks, but huge movements, and it didn’t change after birth. He was running by 8 months. He would be really happy most the day, but would scream 5 hours every evening. Once I learned about SPD a few years ago, everything made so much sense. My almost 4 year old girl was such an easy and content baby to start with, then at 6 months a switch flipped, and she would cry for hours. She had outgrown her baby swing and no longer spent an hour or 2 swinging throughout the day. Without that input, she struggled to regulate, and still does if we haven’t stuck to her sensory diet. And her extreme picky eating is very sensory related. She never even mouthed objects as a baby. So I am a strong believer in early detection and gentle “intervention”, or at least education for parents. I raised concerns with Drs, nurses, pediatricians. I wish that medical professionals were educated themselves in sensory systems and then shared that with parents. I had to give our GP a run down on vestibular and proprioception sense, she had no idea. Understanding what is going on is key to empowering and supporting our little ones who have sensory differences.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us! We definitely agree, sometimes it’s hard to find answers! So glad you were able to figure out what they needed.
Hi, My daughter is now 4.9 years old .she has delayed speech, and echolalia, she used to sing always when she had sugar food.Not only sugar food food that contains natural sugar like bottle gaurd, Apple ,banana etc…Is it is a sensory issue what can I do to stop her singing all the time.she used to keep one finger to see the distant objects but she removes if we ask her but again repeats same always.when she was 2 years old she refuses to swing when I stopped sugar food she is allowing to swing.she does not like to go the place where some crowd is there.My main concern is her constant singing because of that she is missing the conversations used to talk at home.when I asked to shut her mouth she is repeating same words what I said but not understanding the purpose of silence.
Thanks for reaching out! Some of the items you are stating sounds like there are sensory preferences that your daughter has. Swinging and not wanting to be in the crowd points to that. If she is singing for some oral input, you can try to replace it with something else for her to do with her mouth, like chewing on “chewlery” or something else that is appropriate for her so that she is still getting the input. We do have a free workshop that helps provide some more insight into sensory that you may find helpful. You can save your seat HERE
This article is amazing and I wish I had seen it when my 4 year old was a baby. He had to be swaddled for sleep until 7 months old, he screamed the first time I put him barefoot on grass, and he used to cry whenever I tried singing to him. I also don’t recall any moments when his little body was completely at rest with no movement (arms or legs were always moving). His pediatrician completely ignored my concerns and told me I was worrying over nothing. 4 years later I know my son has Sensory Processing Disorder but it wasn’t an easy journey to get to this point where he has some help from an OT. I now suspect he may have ADHD too, but that’s a whole other journey we have to start now. Thank you for your wonderful site, it has such valuable information!!!
We are so glad that you found us now! How great that you are so in tune with your child!! You know him better than anyone, so never quit fighting for what you need.
I’m happy that you found this article helpful 🙂
If you are looking for more sensory information and explanations, we do have a free workshop that will help you become your child’s sensory expert!
Save your seat here: yourkidstable.com/workshop
I’m wondering if my child has a sensory issue, sometimes when touching certain things (first time it happened was when he touched my husbands hair while it was wet) he would recoil, grimace and shudder. He then did it while chewing down on a spoon, and then in the bath when he splashed water on his face. I was worried it was infantile spasms, but it seems to be more like a reaction to something than a seizure? Does this sound like it could be a sensory issue? I’ve been to see 3 different doctors and none of them can figure out what it is.
It could be sensory related. Working on allowing him to continue touching/feeling the sensations in a non pressure way can help to overcome those, if he’s open to that. It can be something that he can work through. You can read more about sensory sensitivities HERE