What is a sensory diet? If you suspect underlying (or obvious) sensory issues in your child or toddler, then it won’t be long before you hear or come across the idea of a sensory diet. Find out exactly what it means for your child!
As an OT, term “sensory diet” is one I’ve used a lot, and is part of my regular vocabulary, but I think there are a lot of common misconceptions and misunderstanding when it comes to sensory diets. I’m going to clear that all up in this post, by thoroughly answering the question: What is a sensory diet? And, if you’re hear wondering if your child’s sensory issues warrant more help, maybe from a professional, then head over to sensory integration therapy to get all your questions answered about if and when that’s necessary!
What is a Sensory Diet Exactly?
Let’s make sure we are all on the same page, because I think the term, sensory diet, can sound like a big deal and get overwhelming fast. And truly, I tell you, even for kids that have more extreme sensory needs, having a sensory diet can be a normal part of your family’s life, even one that you give little thought to. In its truest form, a sensory diet is providing your child with different types of sensory input as they need it, throughout the day, so they can function to their full potential.
That’s a little bit of a wordy definition, and I did choose each of those words carefully. But I think we need to break it down a bit, otherwise you may get a little lost in that sensory diet confusion – and that is all too easy to do!
The Sensory Diet Breakdown
First, when I say “providing your child”, I mean that you offer them or have certain activities set up for them to use.
Second, when I say “sensory input,” I’m referring to any type of sensation we experience that stimulates our senses. So think of the 5 classic senses, plus movement and pressure, the sensations we get from the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Imagine all the lights, sounds, textures, smells, tastes, and movements we feel in any given environment. All of us are taking in and processing sensory input constantly throughout the day, everything from the temperature in a room, to how bright the lights are, and even to the sensations we experience when we walk down a flight of stairs. Wow, right! It’s a lot that most of us take for granted.
We ALL have preferences for what types of lights, sounds, smells, etc. we prefer and which we don’t because of how our own unique brain processes those sensations. Our children are no different. Find out more about the 7 senses here: Understanding Sensory Basics.
Third, when I say “as they need it,” I mean that these activities are offered at a time (often before) your child would benefit from them. For example, imagine that every time your child has to leave for school they have a hard time following directions, they seem distracted, and keep trying to jump on the furniture.
The fact that your child can’t listen to you is a red flag that they could benefit from a sensory activity perhaps sometime before you’re trying to get ready to leave and give these directions.
Your child is also giving you a huge clue as to what type of input they need because they are jumping on the furniture. That doesn’t always happen, but many times it does once you start looking for the clues. In this example, your child might benefit from jumping on the couch or a trampoline for 5-10 minutes BEFORE the direction.
The sensory input they get from the bouncing will meet their sensory needs so they will stop seeking to fill those needs which is what is stealing their attention. When they aren’t seeking, they can do what they need to do, in this case, listen to you so you can get the heck out of the house without flipping out or missing the bus.
On the other hand, activities are sometimes offered on the fly because you can’t always predict when your child will need them. This gets into a whole other can of worms, but learning what types of activities your child likes and which ones help them will give you a set of activities to use whenever you need them.
Of course, it only makes sense to provide these activities “throughout the day”, each child and really even each day will change.
One day they may not need to jump on the trampoline, or maybe they only need 3 minutes and another day its 10 minutes. For that matter, it may be a totally different activity like having a breakfast with crunchy food or wearing a tight fitting shirt. (Don’t get overwhelmed here, we’ll talk more on this in a minute) The point here, though, is that it’s so very important that a sensory diet is fluid and adapts to what your child’s particular needs are on a daily basis.
Lastly, I use the general phrase “so they can function to their full potential,” in this sensory diet definition because when your child’s sensory issues are managed, they can do anything they are capable of doing.
See when your child has sensory needs they can’t focus on anything else. Their brain is stuck on jumping on the couch because their body needs it to be regulated. Or, the buzzing from the lights is so distracting to them it’s all they can hear. When we give them sensory tools, strategies, and activities to meet those needs, then they can learn, listen, communicate, play, eat, and sleep the way they were meant to.
A sensory diet is simply a tool that allows us to help them fill whatever sensory need they may have. We’ll talk more on this in a minute…
Who are Sensory Diet’s for?
Before we get into how a sensory diet usually works in your home or even a school setting, let’s talk about who usually needs, or would at least benefit, from a sensory diet. I think kids usually fall into three different groups:
1. Children with sensory issues but no diagnosis. Because each of our kids processes sensory input differently, they may have some tendencies that set them apart from other kids. Maybe they fall more into the sensory seeking camp or maybe they are a little sensory defensive, but it isn’t enough to affect their life significantly and so they have no diagnosis. That is totally appropriate. But, you see the differences. You see how sometimes they just can’t pay attention to you, or that they are incredibly impulsive, or that they shut down in public settings.
Often times these behaviors aren’t “significant” enough to put a label or diagnosis on them, and many will chalk these behaviors up to personality traits. Sometimes people call these kids: wild, sensitive, high-need, spirited, or strong willed.
When I hear a kid described with one of those adjectives my ears always perk up because I’ve often seen milder sensory issues lying under the surface. This may be a real aha moment for some of you right now because their are a lot of children falling into this in-between space of having mild sensory issues but no diagnosis. To check out a list (and grab a free printable) of sensory indicators, head to Sensory Red Flags.
If you’re still wondering if your child falls into the mild sensory issues category, ask yourself these questions:
- Does your child seem uncomfortable, irritable, or cry sometimes for no reason or for what you would consider mild irritants?
- Does your child have difficulty listening to you or following directions?
- Does your child seem to bounce off the walls or have a lot of energy at times?
- Does your child have trouble sleeping, eating, socializing, at times?
If you answered yes to 2 or more of these questions, I want you to at least consider offering some sensory activities, aka a sensory diet. Those few questions are by no means any sort of definitive answer and they can all be explained by other challenges children face, BUT sensory diet activities could help them! It is worth investigating! To help tease out the difference between sensory and behavior click here.
2. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) If your child does actually have a diagnosis, then a sensory diet is pretty much a given as a tremendously helpful tool. If you’d like to learn more about SPD, and what it really is, head over here to Lemon Lime Adventures.
3. Children with Autism and ADHD, most of the time. Kids with these diagnoses often have sensory issues or needs, but not always. However, poor attention, communication, sleep, socialization, and eating can all be improved with a sensory diet. If you haven’t tried sensory activities with your child before, and they have one of these diagnoses, I would highly recommend doing so! You may see amazing results, I’ve personally witnessed them many times myself!
How Does a Sensory Diet Work?
For some kids, a part of their sensory diet might mean regularly scheduled activities, like in our earlier example. Your child’s sensory diet may be fairly regimented with a specific schedule every day, or it may mean offering sensory diet activities as they’re needed, like when you notice your child is overwhelmed by a noisy environment you offer them headphones. It really looks different in every home, as it should!
It can also be incredibly beneficial to use sensory diet cards, which allow your child to pick which activity would be the most beneficial!
Remember, that the activities I’ve shared in this post are just a few small examples, among hundreds, probably thousands, which is where the overwhelm can start to come in. Don’t let that overwhelm in though, because I have over 100 sensory diet activities in this post, and it will be a perfect place to get started.
And, if you want to look at some more specific sensory diet activities, you can check out:
- How to Set up a Sensory Tent
- Everything Oral Sensory
- Powerful Proprioceptive Activities that Calm, Focus, and Alert
- DIY Sensory Tunnel (great for proprioceptive input)
Once, your ready to pull it all together I’ve got a free printable sensory diet template for you, plus many more detailed tips!
Most important point from this post though is to understand that the essence of the sensory diet is helping your child get the sensory input they need when they need it.
Keeping that mind, when you can figure out and understand what your child’s sensory needs are, well, that is what makes a sensory diet very manageable. In fact, it just becomes a way of life because you’re helping your child in small, somewhat routine ways, the same way you would make sure their teeth are brushed or helped them with their homework.
More on Sensory Diet’s for Kids
45 Essential Vestibular Activities and Input Ideas
The Secrets of the Mighty Tactile Sense Revealed
How to Choose the Right Sensory Toy for Your Child
13 Easy Sensory Strategies for the Classroom
At what stage of age do you start seing sensory issues. I have a 6 month old baby, and I perceive some anxciety or nervousness when hearing people’s voices, playing with some toys or so. He doesn’t cry a lot, he’s rather observant, but he moves hands quickly and stretches his legs when excited. I just want to know more about it.
Hi Claudia! Thanks for reaching out! It may be hard to tell yet if your baby has any sensory issues due to how little he is. We have a blog post that helps identify sensory issues in toddlers, which can be a bit easier to identify. Check it out here!
I was so emotional when I first came to this site and read about the Sensory Red Flags. My sons both had/have sensory issues (didn’t even know what this was with my oldest who is now 10). This really surfaced with my youngest (now 6). He began to struggle at age 4 and one day care told me he couldn’t come back without being medicated. I was heartbroken. I knew there was something “wrong” but didn’t know what it was.
The articles on this site about sensory activities, recognition, etc. have been eye-opening and helpful!!! Reading the list of activities made me realize that when I was a child, we were always outside playing, so these issues were barely noticeable.
I was going to use medication as a very last resort. I knew that with behavior modification, counseling, and now THIS info, I could help my child become the best he could be. He just needs a little extra help that other children don’t.
Thank you SO much for this insight! It has peaked my interest into OT/Sensory education. I’m definitely going to put some of these things into practice and increase community awareness of this topic.
We’re so glad it has been helpful! A really great starting point would be our free sensory workshop. You can save your seat HERE! Let us know if you have any questions at all.
My daughter is a fussy eater because of tactile and olfactory sensitivity. I’m just wondering how not pressuring her to eat is going to work irt resolving the sensitivities. I assume other work will be necessary to address those?
Yes, if you know she has underlying causes (which a lot of extreme picky eaters do). You will need work on those as well. Applying the no pressure is the first step in working towards that. For some kids that is all they need to make all the difference. However, others that are more severe and known to have underlying sensory issues do need work on those as well. I’m guessing you’ve seen our free workshop that does go over the no pressure environment. Our full course, Mealtime Works, does walk though the treating of the underlying causes and how to work through that step by step!
Hope that helps!
My 9 year old daughter has always had sensitivity to loud noises and large crowds. As she has gotten older most of that has subsided. However, recently (last couple months) she has had difficulty finding any clothes that don’t hurt her armpits. There is no rhyme or reason to what feels ok and it changes daily, making it very hard to create a wardrobe of clothes she will wear in an effort to make mornings run a bit more smoothly. Any advice on type of clothes that will help? She seems to go baggier not tighter. Any advice on ways to work through it and help her be more open to a variety of clothes?
We do have a post about clothing sensitivities so you can check that out here I would try to work on what she is going to wear the night before, providing some options for clothing that seems to feel okay for her. It will be helpful for her providing feedback as well. Look for softer shirts without hard seams! hope this helps!
It does! Thank you!!!
An add to my previous response about my “spirited, high needs” daughter, what would you suggest as first steps to helping our 8 month old with life moving forward with potential sensory needs? Even though she’s only 8 months, she fits the description of a high needs child.
I left you the link to our free workshop on sensory, I think this will be helpful in your learning. Your next steps will be figuring out which activities are going to be calming for her and trying to incorporate different activities throughout the day that she is seeking (ie: sensory diet). I’d watch the free workshop first and get some more basline information and go from there 🙂
Oh my gosh! I’m literally in tears from my “aha!” moment. My daughter is 8 months old. At 3-4 months (after SO many tears) we self diagnosed her as difficult, high needs, and spirited. The books for this type child’s temperament fits our baby to a “T”. Lately she’s been having issues with not wanting to feed herself. Holds her hands off the high chair tray and refuses to touch her food. I’ve been seeking answers. Long story short, I started reading your articles and started wondering if all her crying and issues since birth have been sensory related!! I found this article and just started crying! This is her!!!!! We can help her!!! And I now have hope and direction of where to start! THANK YOU!!!!!
OH MY!!! YES!!!! Sarah, we are so happy that you found our site and our articles that have helped you understand! Sensory is something that isn’t explained a lot, unless you are looking! Great job mama at finding the answers! We do have a free workshop that will walk you through Sensory and behaviors if you haven’t seen it yet, it will be helpful in learning all about it!! You can save your seat HERE
At the time Sarah wrote this post her child was 8months. Are you all asserting Sarah’s child has sensory issues because she “refuses to eat her food” at this age? Is it possible to make a temperament determination at this age? Sarah refers to all the “crying” from her daughter, who is an infant.
No, we are not saying that she has sensory issues because she “refuses to eat her food”. Mom has an understanding of what sensory is and found our article helpful in determining that is what they need to work on to move forward. She is talking about “crying” but also from mom’s perspective.
Hi. Really need help with our little boy. He’s almost two and he just loves his mum’s breast milk. He will barely eat anything. He tries it but only eats the tiniest amounts and quite often just says no and calls out for milk. He hasn’t put weight on in almost a year.
Thanks for reaching out! So sorry you are dealing with this difficult situation. I’d be focusing on getting him to eat some more table foods in hopes to transition. We do have a free workshop full of great information to help with “picky eating” and kids who aren’t eating much. You can save your seat HERE
Thankyou so much for your amazing website Alisha! My son has just started school and his sensory issues have suddenly become out of control and he’s struggling so much! This information makes so much sense & has given me hope and ideas of how to support him while we wait to see an OT. Thankyou from a very grateful mumma!
Thanks for letting us know!! WE appreciate the feedback! If you need any help or looking for something specific, let us know we can help guide you in the right direction!
Thank you for the information you share here. I’m the grandmother of a 19 month old girl who’s easily startled and often covers her ears whenever she hears the coffee grinder, blender, furnace or ac noise, dishes clanking in the sink, etc. (when indoors). Or, if we’re outdoors– it’s the passing garbage trucks, motorcycles and school buses. We can barely enjoy a walk to the park without her need to brace herself at the approach of these noises all the while looking up and down the for any potential source of loud noise with her hands over her ears. (Oddly, there are occasions where large noisy trucks race by and she appears unaffected.) I feel so sad and my heart breaks for her. We first discovered her sensitivity when she was approximately 6 months old and thought she’d eventually outgrow it. We have no reason to suspect autism because by all other indicators she is a bright little social butterfly and responsive to everyone around her. In fact, she tends to approach older children to say “hi” when we’re out and about. She loves music and can listen, dance and sing to it for hours.
My daughter and her husband have yet to bring it to the attention of her pediatrician. Of course, I want her to receive the medical (or other) attention she needs, but don’t want her stigmatized as a “weird” kid.
Hi Pam, I totally understand! It’s very possible that she just has some sensory needs and that supporting her sensitivity is all she needs. If she seems to have anything else going on, I’d look into an OT evaluation for sensory processing. But I think this article will help a lot:: https://yourkidstable.com/child-sensitive-to-noise/
Mi ocupacional therapy and I Will Luke to asi you if you hace deséame information that de terminar o “sensory diet” was OT Wilbarger the first how use
Can you give me any ideas to help my daughter at the dentist? She is so sensitive to the sound of the drills in her mouth with cleanings. She wears beats headphones and listens to music but it is not enough.
Have you tried noise cancelling earphones? I have a new post all about noise sensitivities that could help too!
My daughter is nine years old and she has been exhibiting some of the red flags since 2 years old. I thought she had “grown out of them” but I realize now they are still with us and causing frustration. Is it too late to address them?
Absolutely not! Natalie, you’re just in time because I have a free series, that’s live, and only happening next week. I think it will be really helpful for you, check it out here: yourkidstable.com/sensory-series
Can we print this explanation to send home to parents or is there a print option?
This is unique and sounds wonderful!