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