What is a sensory diet?

A sensory diet could help your child to improve behaviour and learning, but sensory diets have nothing to do with food! Occupational Therapists from Kids First in Sydney’s northern beaches, explain…

Occupational Therapy for kids

As Occupational Therapists (OTs), What is a Sensory Diet? is a question we hear very frequently. To explain it successfully to you, first we need to explain what Sensory Processing is.

What is Sensory Processing?

Sensory Processing is a necessity for our survival and it is very important for your child’s development and learning.

Sensory processing enables us to feel touch, hear sounds, smell and taste food, feel when we are about to fall, know where our body is in space and see where we are going. Effective sensory processing between our body’s receptors and our brain protects us from danger, allows us to coordinate our movements and interact with other people.

For some children and adults, sensory processing is not the smooth, automatic process that it should be.

Sometimes, your child’s senses may be under or over reactive, resulting in inappropriate reactions to sounds, touch or even heights and motion.

When this happens, the nervous system may enter ‘fight, flight, fright’ mode too frequently, which can result in your child often feeling anxious, angry, hyperactive or irritable.

Alternatively, your child’s body may not register different sensations very well, and as a result your child appear very lethargic, sleepy or difficult to engage.

How can a sensory diet help?

So, what can you do if this sounds like your child?

Well, the first thing that needs to happen is a thorough assessment by an Occupational Therapist trained in Sensory Processing.

Because every child is different and individuals may often present to be over responsive to some things, and under responsive to others, your child will respond best to a treatment plan that is tailored specifically to their needs.

It needs to be individualised and evaluated by a professional with experience in this area so that you get good advice about what to do, and importantly, what not to do as you set up a sensory diet for your child!!

If it’s determined that your child might have Sensory Processing issues, a sensory diet may be prescribed.

A sensory diet has nothing to do with food

A sensory diet is not, as commonly believed, in any way related to food.

It is a prescription of daily activities for your child to complete at home, with the aim to help them to get to a calm, alert, organised state. We want your child to be in this state when learning or interacting with others because ‘being regulated’ facilitates good attention, emotional regulation and ultimately, successful engagement in what they want to be doing, whether it be studying, playing with friends or just sitting through a meal.

Sensory diet activities

So what types of activities may be included in a sensory diet? Well, once again, this depends on the individual.

Some kids may need help to calm down, while others may need help to get started. There are certain ‘sensory’ activities which may help to achieve this calm alert state. Usually, a sensory diet would include activities such as:

  • Touch activities (usually deep pressure such as a massage or hug)
  • Proprioception activities (heavy work such as weightlifting, or using your muscles and joints against resistance)
  • Vestibular or movement based activities
  • Activities using your mouth, such as sucking, chewing or crunching
  • Breathing activities

These are specifically chosen and included because they have a calming/alerting effect on the nervous system. They release chemicals in your child’s brain that help their nervous system to function at its optimal level.

Adults need good sensory processing too

As an adult, you also have sensory processing needs, but you might not even be aware of how your body manages them.

To give you an example, you might be the kind of person who needs plenty of hugs and cuddles when upset in order to calm down. You might need to go for a run or a bike ride in the mornings to wake up and be ready for work. You might chew your pen or gum to help you to concentrate. Some people need more movement than others and may find an office job very difficult.

Because you’re a grown up, you often have control over how you meet these needs… you can step away if a situation starts to overwhelm you, or perhaps have the power to make yourself a snack if you need to.

The difference with kids is…

Unfortunately, most children don’t have much control over their environment or their daily routines.

Sometimes, it’s hard for them to know what they need and they don’t have the ability or permission to use their initiative to obtain the sensory input they need to remain regulated.

Sometimes too, children choose inappropriate ways to achieve the input they need.

Often these kids have significant difficulties with sitting still and attending, may demonstrate behavioural difficulties such as biting or hitting, and can also find it hard to play with friends.

In these situations it is vital to get the Sensory Diet in place to help children to regulate their bodies; however it is not always an easy process and may involve multiple changes to the activities.

It takes time to get the frequency, duration and intensity of a sensory activity right. It also needs to be completed consistently to get the desired effects.

Hopefully this has given you a chance to think about how your nervous system may assist you with your daily life and how a sensory diet may help! If you need more advice about how to meet your child’s sensory needs, contact a paediatric occupational therapist who, like me, has experience in this field.

Need help to set up a sensory diet for your child?

Kids First’s paediatric occupational therapists have years of experience and have supported hundreds of children with sensory processing needs.

Our vibrant occupational therapy gyms are located in Brookvale in Sydney’s northern beaches.

If you’d like to discuss your child’s needs, call Kids First on (02) 9938 5419 to make an appointment with one of our friendly OTs now.

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