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Sensory strategies for parents

Children notice and respond to different things from the world around them.  Your child may be more sensitive to certain sensations and activities than their friends.  These differences are usually normal and part of what makes us individual.

What is sensory processing?

It describes how we understand information from the world around us through our senses –  sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.  There are two other senses known as ‘proprioception’ (body awareness) and ‘vestibular’ (balance and movement).

Heightened sensory responses

Some children may show a heightened response to some sensations. Occasionally this can be a sign of a sensory processing difficulty. Having a sensitivity in one area, during certain times of the day, does not usually mean that your child has a sensory processing difficulty or needs to see an occupational therapist.

Some children under 5 years with no sensory processing issues will find certain parts of their daily routine difficult. These often include:

  • bath time
  • hair brushing
  • visiting the supermarket
  • loud or unpredictable noises.

Daily routines

Many children resist parts of the daily routine to exert greater control over their environment and parents. Try to work out if your child really dislikes certain sensations or activities, or whether they’re experimenting with control.

Sometimes you may avoid certain situations, places or activities to avoid the reaction they bring out in your child. This means your child will not have the opportunity to experience the things they find challenging. They will find it harder to learn how to tolerate these challenging experiences.

How to manage anxiety in certain situations or environments

Prepare your child for the activity to help them cope better with it. Your child will need reassurance in a way they can understand. It can be helpful for your child to:

  • look at pictures or photo stories about the activity
  • hold  familiar comforting toy
  • use a picture timetable for the event.

Tips to manage common problems

If the tips below do not help, you can refer your child to our occupational therapy service.

My child hates having their hair brushed

You could:

  • use gentle yet firm brush strokes
  • sit your child in front of a mirror so they can see what’s happening
  • sing a song or rhyme as you brush. Finish brushing when the song ends so that your child knows how long the task will take.
  • use a good detangling conditioner or detangling spray. Some hair brushes such as ‘Tangle Teezer’ glide more easily through hair.
  • keep hair shorter if your child really dislikes hair brushing
  • use stickers or reward charts
  • keep it fun. Play ‘hairdressers’ with your child, where they brush and style your hair too, and encourage your child to brush their toys’ hair.

My child won’t sit still

Young children often find it harder to stick with more structured activities. Keep activities short at first and change the activity frequently to help keep them engaged.

You can also:

  • let your child use some of their ‘energy’ during active games such as a trip to the playground before expecting them to sit and play in a more structured way
  • link activities to your child’s interests. For example, colour pictures of a favourite television character and have puzzles that link to their interests
  • sit next to your child, playing with a similar toy or drawing alongside them
  • reduce any distracting clutter on the table top or where they are playing
  • make sure your child’s not too tired or hungry to play.

My child hates loud noises

Try to warn your child about a noise before it happens.  This can help them to anticipate and make sense of the sound. You can also tell your child stories with words or pictures, about loud noises that they fear.  This can help to reduce anxiety and help them understand what they hear.

Try to arrive at noisy places early, before the noise peaks, so that your child can gradually become used to the environment around them. Find quieter parts of noisier places if possible. Wearing ear defenders, hats, ear muffs or even ear plugs may help.

If necessary, try to avoid extremely noisy situations that cause your child great distress. This can help for a while and as your child becomes older they may be more able to cope with that particular environment.

Sucking, drinking from a sports bottle, crunchy snacks or mouthing a safe object may help your child cope with noisy places and comforting toys may help to relieve their anxiety.

If your child finds noisy electronic toys a problem, turn down the volume or put tape over the speakers.

My child won’t sleep

You can:

  • have a predictable bedtime routine, for example, calm time before bed, bath, tooth brushing and then a story.
  • avoid active and excitable play just before bedtime. Stories should be calming and read in a quieter voice
  • have plenty of outdoor time earlier in the day
  • keep the bedroom a calm space without too much distracting clutter
  • put up blackout blinds if your child’s bedroom is too light
  • give firm cuddles or a massage before going to sleep
  • make sure your child is not too hot or cold at night as this can interfere with their sleep

Find out more about how to manage your child’s sleep.

My child does not listen even though I know they can hear me

You can:

  • talk to your child at their level whilst they look at you. Use simple, age-appropriate language
  • use play or songs to catch your child’s attention so they want to listen
  • avoid calling to your child across a busy room if possible and approach them from the front, rather than behind
  • use visual cue-cards of photos or pictures relevant to their daily routine.

My child dislikes tooth brushing

You can:

  • read stories or show your child books that feature toothbrushing or pictures of the brushing sequence
  • make sure your child sits or stands securely while they brush their teeth
  • try different types of toothpaste and a toothbrush. A rubber type of brush may be helpful initially – character toothbrushes may be more motivating for some children
  • let your child brush their own teeth for part of the routine.
  • keep it fun and encourage your child to role-play ‘brushing’ a toy’s teeth or your teeth
  • use reward charts
  • have a visual timer or sing a favourite song for the duration of the task, to let your child know how long brushing will take.

My child will only wear certain clothes

Children often have preferences about the types of clothes that they like to wear and may have a favourite item, outfit, or colour.

You can:

  • give them a choice of 2 outfits so your child feels more in control but lets you keep clothing suitable for the weather and activities
  • consider the texture and feel of your child’s clothes. Some children can be sensitive to certain types of material or labels. If your child does not like seams on clothes, underwear can be worn inside out.
  • use unscented detergent and conditioner if you feel your child might have sensitivities
  • encourage your child to sit while dressing
  • tell stories about dressing, or use photos and pictures to help your child learn about getting dressed.

Find out more about helping your child learn to get dressed

My child bites

Children often bite when they’re upset or angry. It’s important to find out why they bite to identify a solution.

Children who bite might need to have crunchy snacks at certain times of day, or when their teeth come through. These snacks should be appropriate to their age and dietary needs and could include toast, pretzels, apple, raw vegetable sticks or bread sticks.

You can also:

  • introduce a piece of fabric to chew but check your child can not bite through it and that it does not fray
  • use a ‘chewy tube’ which you can buy online
  • arrange a check-up with their dentist to look at your child’s teeth, or a doctor to check they do not have ear discomfort
  • introduce behavioural strategies when you find out the reason for biting.