Sensory babies, infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, and adults…we are all Sensory Beings living in a Sensory World!
Sensations make up our sensory experiences. Sensory processing of these sensations underpins every human functional task and social interaction. Through sensory processing and sensory integration, we develop and grow our understanding of ourselves, others and the world around us and our resulting behaviour is our response to these sensory experiences.
We are all constructed through a combination of Nature – what our genes bestow upon us, and Nurture – what our environments provide. We are designed this way. Our genes give us the basic structures and make them available to be moulded by the sensory environments we inhabit. This is so we can fit in with the human and physical environment we find ourselves in. It’s like our superpower! It enables us to survive and thrive in the mountains, by the sea, in an English-speaking environment or a French one.
Our development and sensory experiences are intertwined, we do not develop without sensation. Our genetics drive us to seek sensory experiences to connect us to the world around us, explore it, make sense of it, understand it, and to understand ourselves, our sensory likes & dislikes, all building our understanding of what will help us to feel safe, focus, attend and engage. Almost all we know comes to us through our senses. Sensations are a constant feed of information about ourselves and the world around us.
Babies, infants, and toddlers will learn about the world through the sensory integration of constant flows and myriad of sensory information coming from our bodies and the world around us. When these experiences are safe and attuned to us, they are appealing, and we engage in sensory play with the world. It is not possible for activities not to be full of sensations, we could put the word sensory in front of everything we do! Sensory play, sensory learning, sensory communication, sensory swimming……. it is the sensory inputs these provide that enable them to be defined and experienced.
We intuitively know that sensory based play activities are good for development. This is evidenced by a plethora of baby and toddler groups available, sensory baby groups, sensory toddler groups, books on sensory processing and development in babies and toddlers. Manufacturers extol the virtues of sensory toys and sensory activities. And crucially, there is of course the Sensory Beginnings training courses, newsletters, pamphlets etc!
Sensory Processing Difficulties
When sensory experiences are helpful, in sync with the baby, infant or toddler stage of development, and in tune with what they need or can cope with at that time, then the sensory environment promotes regulation, feeling great, and promotes healthy development. Sensory experiences we enjoy, make us feel comfortable, feel safe, make us seek more of it and perhaps excessively so. Sometimes we may label this as ‘sensory seeking’ this sensory activity. When we feel uncomfortable or unsafe, those loved sensations may also be sought to help us back to safety.
Sensory experiences we don’t enjoy make us feel uncomfortable or unsafe so we look to avoid where we can. In such cases, behaviours may be labelled as sensory avoidant behaviours.
In trying to avoid sensory experiences, sensory activities or interactions, our bodies are switched into a stress state; when these heighten, we can move to fight and flight or even freeze behaviours.
When sensory experiences overwhelm our available regulation mechanisms, stress responses are elicited. Part of our development is to work out what stresses us and how we get back to steady-state again, that is, what sensory activities will help us get there.
Prolonged exposure to high doses of stress can result in toxic stress and potentially to trauma leading to frequently exhibited sensory seeking or avoiding behaviours. Someone may then be labelled as having a Sensory Processing Disorder. Their behavioural responses to the demands of certain sensory experiences are outside of typical. If we don’t appreciate the underlying stress or trauma, the response would seem, on the face of it, illogical. However, for that individual, processing the sensory experience in this way, would be a perfectly appropriate response.
In very early development babies need the adults around them to introduce them to the millions of sensations around us. Typically, we do this gently at a rate the baby sensory processing can deal with. This is what attuned parenting is. Knowing what types of sensory activity or experience, at what intensity and quality, would be helpful at any moment. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, not too much, not too little, just the right amount and type!! This is why it is so important that parents are able to be present and available, to be able to spend time holding their child in mind, watching and wondering what would be helpful here. When a parent is in a state of stress, for physical, social, or mental health reasons, they are not so available to interact, interpret and support attuned sensory experiences. Behavioural cues from the baby or toddler telling us what sensory messages are wanted or not wanted can be missed or misinterpreted and stress created. Yup, parenting is not easy!
Challenges to Sensory Development
While some sensory processing difficulties will be due to genetics, acute and chronic alterations in the sensory environments such as can be experienced in the NICU or where there is significant parental stress, can create a stress response in the baby, that will prime the nervous system to process future sensory experiences differently for life. There is at this this early stage an important opportunity for us to reduce the risk of future sensory processing difficulties.
We can look to mitigate these challenges by becoming ‘sensory informed’. All of us, the occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, perinatal therapists and nurses, the NICU nurses, the infant mental health practitioners, the teachers, the swim teachers, the infant massage practioners, the baby sensory class teachers, the parents and grandparents, we all benefit from becoming sensory informed! We can all put on our sensory glasses and look to see our 8 sensory systems in action. Fed through sensory play and interactions we can watch to see what sensory combinations supports a sense of safety, regulation, attention, engagement and exploration, or, what is ignored, is not enjoyed, creates stress behaviours pulling away, pushing away, hiding away, crying and upset. Observation is key.
We can then create opportunities, provide supportive sensory activities: massage, messy play, music, to mention just three of millions of options. Sensory play and interaction with your baby is never too early, even in the womb baby is exploring sensations. What helps is for us be in the moment. To observe. To learn the just right sensory level for that baby, infant, toddler in that moment. That is the magic!
Our online and in-person courses and mentoring help you better understand, observe and inform the role of sensory experiences and environments in infant and baby development. And you’ll get a practical framework to share your knowledge, guide your practice and create a more informed and enjoyable place to work.