Sensory Soothers for Sensitive Little Ones

Many of the children I see in my practice have sensory-based processing issues. Every child and adult I see processes sensory information (we all do!) Sometimes kids get overwhelmed by how much sensory information their bodies and minds are trying to take in. This is called "sensory overload" and can happen to the best of us. 

Here is a list of ideas to soothe your child's senses: 

Sight

  • Make a "calming down" bottle. Watch the glitter swirl until it sinks to the bottom. There are a ton of ideas for this on Pinterest, but here's one to start.

  • Go bird watching. Count the birds you see on your walk. 

  • Watch the flicker of a candle together (never leave a child unsupervised with fire). Extremely calming!

  • Look at old photos together. Kids often love to see their own baby pictures and enjoy seeing you dote on those pictures!

  • Dim the lighting in the room, draw the curtains, or move into a more softly lit space. Stay away from overhead florescent lights: These are horrible for sensitive ones- they flicker and buzz faintly for some, but loud as bees for others.

  • Watch fish swim in a fish tank at home, or visit an aquarium. This can be very calming and hypnotic.


Sound

  • Play soft nature sounds, like waves or birdsong.

  • Get a white noise machine.

  • Put on your child's favorite music.

  • Sing or hum a song to your child. 

  • Let your child cuddle close to you and listen for your heartbeat. Have them pat your arm in time with your heartbeat. This is a great mindfulness activity that also builds attachment.

  • Move into a quiet space or turn down the volume. Minimize time in very busy, loud and chaotic atmospheres. These can be very overwhelming for sensitive ones.

  • Spend time out in nature. 

  • Make easy egg shakers and fill with different materials. Test out the sounds. Try to guess which shaker has beans, rice, rocks, etc.

  • Play call and response games with silly sounds. Sing call and response songs. Have your child play drums, hit pots and pans, or clap hands in time with your steady beat. The relief of not having to lead, but instead following your lead, is very anxiety reducing for little ones.

  • Hum together.

  • Ask your child to close her eyes. Hit a gong, and have her raise hand when she no longer hears the reverberations.

  • Listen to bilateral music (music that shifts from ear to ear) on headphones.

  • Get a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and make them available to your child when she is overwhelmed. These can be purchased quite cheaply (under $10).


Touch

  • Encourage your child to pet the family dog, cat, gerbil, snake, etc.

  • Snuggle beneath a very soft blanket.

  • Cuddle with your child, stroke their hair, give high fives and special handshakes.

  • Strive to give your child 20 hugs a day or more. Hugs are so important for brain development and attachment!

  • Create a special snuggle time with your child at the end and/or beginning of each day. This can really help kids feel calm, safe, loved, and connected to you. Many times these snuggle times evolve into a more trusting relationship where kids begin to share more with parents.

  • Create sensory bins with sand, shaving cream, rice, beans, or water. (There are a million cute ideas on Pinterest.)

  • Read books with sensory pages. 

  • Apply non-irritating lotion twice a day, including after each bath. Often a natural product such as shea butter or coconut oil (without parabens, petroleum or phlates, added fragrance, etc) will do the trick!

  • Give back rubs. 

  • If your child is very averse to touch, look into use of the Wilbarger brushing protocol. A certified Occupational Therapist can train you to do this at home.

  • Create your own book with "pages" made of different textures: soft cloth, newspaper, burlap, fuzzy blanket material, jean material, etc.

 

Taste

  • Sometimes your child might need to have their comfort foods. This is ok. So do parents, right?

  • Just like you keep a stash of chocolate (if you don't, I highly recommend that!), keep a handful of treats stashed in case of emergency. Hint: keep a kid-friendly snack in the glovebox of your car.

  • Hot beverages can comfort grown-ups and children alike. Try hot cocoa, warm milk, or even herbal (decaf) tea with honey.

  • Some children love sucking on ice cubes or eating other frozen items like green peas, grapes, or toaster waffles.

  • Sometimes something with a strong flavor can do the trick. If this describes your child, try Red Hots or Sour Patch Kids candies in a pinch. 

 

Smell

  • Your child is deeply comforted by your scent. If you have to go on a trip, leave behind a t-shirt you've worn for them to cuddle. 

  • Try aromatherapy. The scent of lavender can be very calming, for instance. You can use essential oils directly on your child (diluted), on a piece of fabric, diffused with water in a spray bottle to mist the air, or on a favorite stuffed toy.

  • Avoid products like Febreeze or other strong scents that can be overwhelming to little noses. (Not to mention all the crazy chemicals which certainly aren't healthy for little lungs.)

  • Watch out for "off-gassing." New products can give off chemical smells as they age. Especially noteworthy are new mattresses, new furniture foam (couches, beanbag chairs, ottomans, etc.) These smells are very overwhelming for kids with sensitive noses. 

  • Get fresh air! The air outside your home is cleaner, even in the city, partially due to off-gassing. Open your windows if the temperature allows it. If you are concerned about the air in your home, invest in some house plants. NASA's study produced a handy list of air-purifying plants.

 

Proprioception*

  • Try the "burrito game." Have your child lay face down on a big blanket. Give firm input to your child's back as you add beans, cheese, avocado, chicken, etc. Wrap your burrito up really tight to finish!

  • Have your child lay face down on the floor. Use a yoga ball to roll up and down your child's back, giving lots of pressure by leaning into the ball as you roll. Ask your child if the pressure is too firm or not firm enough and check in frequently for safety.

  • Create a crash-pad with pillows, sofa cushions, sleeping bags, stuffed animals, etc. Let your child jump into it for hours. 

  • Build a pillow fort together. Read books lying on your bellies for added input.

  • Give bear hugs!

  • Feed your child something very crunchy, very chewy (think beef jerky, granola bars), or slurp yogurt through a straw.

  • Purchase or sew your own weighted blanket, weighted vest or lap-pad. Use these for 20 minutes at a time, then give the body a break. Otherwise the body acclimates and the weight will no longer have the same calming effect.

  • Encourage your child to help with "heavy work" chores: moving wet laundry into the dryer, carrying in heavy grocery bags from the car, vacuuming, unloading the dishwasher, shoveling show, raking leaves, weeding, washing the car, pushing the shopping cart, or rearranging the furniture. Anything where they are pushing, pulling, or lifting something (the heavier the better).

  • Create an obstacle course for your child to navigate. Up and down stairs, crawling through tight spaces, rolling or needing to jump over things, are all great options for proprioceptive input.

 

Vestibular*

  • Encourage your child to jump on a trampoline. The bigger the trampoline, the more input your child will get.

  • Push your child on the swing set. Underdogs are the best! 

  • Rock together in a rocker, or glide in a gliding chair. Hammocks are also wonderfully soothing.

  • Ride a bicycle or take a walk. Encourage your child to try out different silly walks that will help them hold their head in different positions, stimulating the inner ear. You can do these walks together, as a race, or you can play the zoo keeper. A preliminary list: monkey walk, elephant walk, crab walk, snake slither, turtle walk, puffer fish swim, parrot fly...

  • Bounce on a large yoga ball.

  • Go swimming. The deeper, the better. This stimulates the inner ear.

  • Let your child play with a theraband or stretchy body sox

  • If there are two adults available, swing your child in a large blanket in hammock-fashion. Bonus points if you sing a lullaby.

  • Spin your child in an office chair.

  • Play at the playground. Slides are great vestibular input. So are tire swings, rope swings, hanging upside down on monkey bars. 

  • Summersaults! Great fun on a blanket in the living room. 

  • Roll down a grassy hill at the park.

  • If your child is constantly seeking vestibular activities, it may be worth it to invest in a swing for your home or backyard. The swings that move in all directions will give more input than the sort that only swing back and forth.

Interoception*

  • The interoceptive sense will generally modulate with a great sensory diet. If your child struggles with this, get an assessment by an Occupational Therapist ASAP.

  • Sometimes under-responders can be helped through a set routine, or the use of cell phone timers for various bodily needs (a timer for take a drink of water, a timer for eat a snack, a timer for bathroom break). This can take any power struggle out of the equation. 

  • Mindfulness strategies. Doing yoga, body scans, relaxation exercises, humming, and meditation can be helpful. There are many free mindfulness resources for kids online.

  • Run a hot bath, add 2 cups Epsom Salts.

  • Drink hot tea to calm the digestive system. Helpful teas for this include licorice and ginger, among others. Chewing on a piece of raw ginger or candied ginger can also be helpful.

 

 

*Want more info on these last 3 senses that nobody taught you in school? 

Check out this post about the 8 Senses!