Have you ever heard a story like this?
Baby Amanda is 10 months old and has a really hard time calming down in the evenings, especially settling to sleep. Mom has been doing what works... bouncing her to sleep her every night. But! Sometimes it takes 2 hours to finally settle her down enough to get to sleep.
Then, the night time marathons start. She needs mom or dad to be lying right next to her in bed, and will wake up at the slightest suggestion of them moving away. Baby Amanda also nurses almost hourly at night. Mom is exhausted from the effort but is concerned Amanda might really need the milk since she isn’t completely onto solids.
To make things even more confusing, Amanda always had some difficulties latching and is often latching/unlatching while nursing during the day. Sometimes she cries and cries and cries and can’t seem to settle regardless of what mom tries.
Mom just doesn’t know what to do. She is exhausted and just mentally and emotionally drained. The doctor keeps telling mom that Amanda will outgrow it. Then goes on to recommend that mom just needs to put some boundaries in place and do some sleep training so that everyone starts sleeping better at night.
That advice just doesn’t feel right, but maybe it’s the only option?
This story illustrates how sensory processing can influence sleep2. But there are many ways that sensory processing differences might be observed in babies. You might hear people talking about sensory processing issues, sensory concerns, sensory needs, sensory differences, sensory difficulties, sensory processing disorder… But, essentially all these terms describe sensory systems that are not working well.
What is Sensory Processing?
We live in a sensory-rich world. Everything we learn and take in from our environment comes into our body (and brain) through our senses, and once the brain has integrated or processed this information, we act on it1.
Sensory processing is the ability of the nervous system to register input from our senses, interpret the information, and form a response (either a motor response, language, cognition, etc)1.
The 8 Sensory Systems Explained
Most of us are familiar with the 5 senses. People are surprised to learn we actually have 8 senses! We receive sensory input from the external world via the most famous 5 senses : tactile (touch), visual (vision), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), and gustatory (taste).
Then! There are the 3 body senses that give us information about our internal world:
Proprioception (body awareness/body position)
Interoception (internal organs, body rhythms such as hunger/thirst, sleep cycles, bowel/bladder, etc).
You already know more than most people! But, now let’s take a deeper dive into the senses. Once you understand the complexity and connections for each one, you will understand so much more about sensory processing. And why things seem so off-kilter with the sensory system isn’t functioning smoothly.
More about the External Senses
Touch: Our sense of touch is received from the skin (which happens to be our largest organ) and gives us information about temperature, pain, touch, and pressure. Tells us where we have been touched, how hard and even what we are touching. Touch gives us a sense of our bodies and tells us whether we are being threatened or comforted.
Touch is crucial to a baby’s physical, cognitive, and emotional development – starts in utero as baby is enveloped in the womb, the placenta and amniotic fluid. Once outside of the womb, touch becomes even more important for baby.
Smell: Perceived by receptors in our nose. The sense of smell is the only sense that goes right through to the limbic system, or the emotional centre, in the brain. This is why smells evoke such strong emotions or memories (ie. think of grandma’s baked cookies, or the smell of tar).
Sight: Our eyes allow us to 'see' objects, light, and color. As this sense matures, we see near and far in varying colors, as well as perceive depth and dimensions.
Hearing: Sound is carried on airways and picked up and registered by receptors in the ear. We learn to identify where sound comes from, and then attach meaning to each sound.
Taste: Taste is closely linked to smell and is perceived by receptors on the tongue. There are special receptors on different parts of the tongue to give us information about salty, sour, bitter, and sweet tastes.
Appreciating the Internal Senses
Vestibular: Housed in our inner ear and senses changes in our position in space. Specifically movement of our head in space. This is essential for BALANCE and our ability to CENTER (ground) ourselves against gravity. When it’s working well, we know the direction of our body’s movement, how fast we are moving, and whether we are speeding up or slowing down.
Proprioception: As important as the vestibular sense, and is closely linked to it. Our muscles and our joints give us a sense of the position of our body in space. This gives us our sense of movement and spatial orientation. Basically so we know the position our body is in and how our limbs are moving.
The proprioceptive and vestibular senses are essential for babies as they move through developmental movement patterns to move into at a sitting position, their first true vertical position, and eventually for standing and walking.
Interoception: Our internal organs give us information about our comfort level and needs, such as hunger, digestion, temperature, and elimination.
As I mentioned, we live in a sensory-rich world. It’s incredible to realize that everything we learn needs to come into our brain through one of our senses. First, we need to be able to receive this sensory information, or ‘sensory messages.’ Then our nervous system needs to organize and process this sensory information in order to form an appropriate behavioural or physical response.
When one or multiple sensory system(s) aren’t working efficiently, then the brain views some sensations (or incoming information) as too strong, or not strong enough.
This is when we often see signs of sensory issues, or differences. And yes, we see this even in babies.
Does My Baby Have Sensory Issues or Differences?
As adults, we can control to a large extent, what sensory information we take in. We use that information to respond to the world or to behave in a certain way. But a baby's (and even child's) brain is less developed than an adult.
Oftentimes, it’s much harder to pick up sensory differences or difficulties in babies, because well, they can’t tell us. They might be experiencing something like being held or a diaper changes as uncomfortable. Or, they don’t have words to say they like, and need, to be rocked back and forth all the time.
Instead, they rely on their most effective form of communication…. crying…..
And because crying can be for any variety of reasons hunger, thirsty, wet or dirty, tired or overtired, uncomfortable due to reflux. It’s often really easy to miss something they are telling us about their sensory preferences.
For babies, sensory processing differences might look like:
Not wanting to be held or cuddled - maybe they push away during feeding, or seem happiest when not held.
Sleep difficulties – falling asleep, staying asleep, or even just restless sleep and moving a lot.
Sensitivity to loud noises (that don't seem to bother other babies).
Difficulty calming down once upset (even when held by a loving caregiver).
Difficulty transitioning to solids.
Always on the move.
Not wanting to be contained in a baby car seat or stroller.
Now, as you can tell, a lot of these behaviours are somewhat typical for babies. So, the key to be looking for is when these problems are affecting their daily function (or your family's daily function/routine). This is an indication of a need to dive into sensory differences and ways to get additional help.
You can download a ‘red flags’ checklist here - www.kailiets.com/pages/sensory-processing
It’s often easier to spot sensory processing differences in older children, because they may exhibit more observable problems with things like:
Motor skills (ie. clumsy, falling, or bumping into things)
Behaviour (aggressions, withdrawing, frequent tantrums, etc)
And the list of areas impacted by sensory processing could go on. But, many of these skills are noticed when an older child has difficulty in functioning at home or school.
What to Do Next When Sensory Differences are Suspected?
Okay, so you might be wondering now whether your baby has some sensory processing differences. And more importantly, whether you need to get them diagnosed or fixed in some way.
The answer is….it depends.
It always depends on the baby (or older child) and how they are managing and functioning.
The sensory systems continue to develop throughout the first year of life, and even beyond. The first 7 years of a child’s life are considered the sensorimotor years (ie. learning through the senses and movement). Luckily, there are lots of beneficial activities that you can do at home to improve the way a baby’s sensory system works.
Of course, it is also possible that sensory issues in a baby might represent a bigger area of concern when causing significant functional problems. Eventually leading to a more specific diagnosis, which would then warrant further investigation by a qualified professional. When, and if this is true, your child may need to be seen more consistently in a therapeutic setting by an occupational therapist with specific training in sensory processing & integration
Trust Your Parent Instincts and Seek Out Help When Needed
I tell parents to trust their instincts. Seek out more information if your baby, toddler, or even older child has symptoms that are occurring frequently. Especially if it is impacting your child’s overall daily functioning, well-being, relationships and even the family’s dynamics and routines compared to other children the same age. And remember, what is disruptive to one child and one family might not be the same for another family, so please please please trust your mama instincts!
Sensory Processing is something I have been passionate about learning over my 12-year career as a pediatric occupational therapist. I’ve gained so much valuable experience from working in a variety of settings – from early intervention, to nursery and elementary schools for kids with Autism, to private sensory clinics, with kids of all ages.
Now that I focus my attention on babies 0-3, infant development, and sleep, I have transitioned out of the typical therapy role and more into a role of teaching and supporting families virtually through educational consultations. I love how I am able to apply all this background interest in sensory challenges to baby development and parent coaching.
If you are wondering if your baby or young child has some sensory issues going on, but aren’t sure whether they warrant intensive therapy in a clinic or sensory gym – I’ve got you!
I’ve made an easy to consume Sensory 101 course that takes you through the development of the sensory systems in babies. Not meant to replace an outside professional, but offering tips and tricks and activity ideas along the way. It even includes a whole lesson on how sensory processing may affect sleep, with lots of strategies to make bedtime better. This course can provide tons of knowledge and tips to get you started.
And, of course, I offer 1:1 virtual consultations if you want to talk through some symptoms and get some individualized education and ideas for strategies to try. And I will help you find additional resources if my resources don’t fit the needs of your child and family.
1. Miller, L. J., Nielsen, D. M., Schoen, S. A., & Brett-Green, B. A. (2009). Perspectives on sensory processing disorder: a call for translational research. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 3, 22. https://doi.org/10.3389/neuro.07.022.2009