Imagine you walk into a busy restaurant to meet a friend. You scan the room for her face, and maneuver your way around tables. You give your friend a hug that’s just the right amount of pressure, then seamlessly sit in the chair across from her. Even though people are constantly waking past your table, you remain focused on your friend. You barely notice the sea of noises around you as you listen to her voice. When your soup arrives, you bring a spoonful to your mouth, feel that it’s hot, and blow on it.
How is it that you’re able to do all of that, without even thinking about it? Sensory integration! Let’s unpack that, because it’s a huge task that your little one is busy learning right now.
What is Sensory Integration?
Sensory integration is the process of taking in information through our senses, interpreting and organizing it, and using it to function. Our senses send messages to the brain, and the brain processes them and tells us what to do. When you touched your lips to that too-hot soup, a lightning-fast communication occurred between your sense of touch and your brain, and your brain told you to pull the spoon away and blow on it. Similarly, your senses of sight and sound communicated with your brain about your surroundings, and your brain helped you filter and focus your attention so you could carry on a conversation amidst the busyness of the restaurant.
Our sensory system is constantly processing information from multiple senses at the same time, allowing us to seamlessly interact with our surroundings as we move, communicate, learn, work and play.
How Does Sensory Integration Develop?
Sensory development begins in the womb and continues as babies grow. Every time a baby interacts with her surroundings, whether being held, fed, talked to, massaged, taken outside, played with and so on, her senses develop and learn to work together. Over time she also learns the essential skill of filtering sensory information so she can focus on certain things while ignoring others.
You can support your child’s sensory development in a couple of keys ways. Right from the start, give her lots of tummy time and other opportunities to freely move her entire body. Also, gently expose her to a variety of sensory information. Our BabySparks program offers dozens of ideas for sensory-specific activities.
Don’t forget to get messy! Messy play is a fun sensory workout for your little one.
What do Sensory Integration Challenges Look Like?
For some little ones, communication between the senses and the brain isn’t smooth, resulting in over- or under-sensitivity to sensations. A child who is over-sensitive to sensations may gag every time she eats a certain texture of food, react in extreme ways to bright lights or noises, or recoil from being touched. A child who is under-sensitive, on the other hand, may crave tight hugs or intense physical activity, or appear to not feel pain. Children with sensory challenges may also be especially clumsy (beyond the usual tumbles and fumbles of learning new skills), move constantly, or lag behind on milestones.
If you’re concerned about your little one’s sensory development, a pediatric occupational therapist can offer guidance.