Sensory 101: Exploring Sensory Development and The Different Sensory Preferences
When we’re born, our senses haven’t fully matured yet. As we grow, our sensory systems enable us to understand the world around us and develop language, motor, and social skills.
But some children have different sensory needs, which means they require more guidance from parents and caregivers to help them along the way.
Below, find out everything you need to know, from signs that your child might need more or less sensation to the importance of sensory play in their development.
What are our sensory systems?
Our sensory systems enable us to engage and interact with our surroundings. They help us to feel calm, safe, and secure – especially in challenging situations.
The most well-known senses are vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. The lesser-known sensory systems include The Proprioception System (body position), The Vestibular System (movement and balance), and The Tactile System (touch, pain, and temperature). Learn more about these key systems below.
The Proprioceptive System
The Proprioceptive System tells the brain how the body is moving in space. For example, it refers to the timing of motor actions, coordination, movement, and balance.
The Vestibular System
The Vestibular System relates to balance, movement, and postural control.
The Tactile System
The Tactile System relates to the feeling of light touch, deep touch, pressure, temperature, and pain.
When do children develop different sensory preferences?
As children are exposed to different sensory experiences, they will likely develop different preferences which may change over time.
You might start to notice your child’s different sensory preferences as they grow and develop. Today, we’re going to talk about two sensory preferences: those who need more and those who need less sensation.
It’s important to remember that not all children fall into these categories and our sensory needs can change over the course of the day. Your child’s sensory preferences will also depend on how well your child is able to self-regulate (manage their emotions/self-soothe).
Does my child have a sensory preference?
Every child is different. A need for or avoidance of certain sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and movements might indicate that they have a sensory preference.
Below, find common signs that your child has a stronger preference for more stimulation to stay engaged.
Those who need more sensation can actively seek and enjoy, or need the below:
- Sensory seekers and low registration children actively seek the below.
- Constant background noise.
- Physical contact.
- New foods and textures.
- Bright colours and different visuals.
- Movement such as pushing button, bouncing, jumping or rocking.
Those who need less sensation can avoid or become overwhelmed with the following:
- Sensory avoiders and children with sensory sensitivity avoid the following.
- Loud or unfamiliar sounds.
- Certain smells.
- Bright lights, certain colours, or the dark.
- Different foods/textures.
- Physical touch.
What does needing more sensation look like?
The below behavioural traits might indicate that your child needs more sensation:
- Frequently touching people or objects.
- Seeking or making loud noises.
- Chewing/sucking on non-food items.
- Not having a clear understanding of personal space.
- Regularly jumping, running, or bumping into people/objects.
How can I support my child who needs more sensation?
Children who need more sensation and actively seek it out can often be misunderstood. But taking the time to figure out what they crave can help them to regulate their behaviour. For example, if they respond well to background noise then listening to music through headphones might help to stimulate them.
Below, find common ways you can support a child who needs more sensation:
- A child who craves movement and is often jumping around or bumping into others might benefit from a game/playing in the park before having to sit down for long periods of time.
- A child who seeks different tastes might benefit from sucking on something sour or sweet.
- A child who reaches out to touch their clothing or different objects might benefit from a toy. Our new Self-Soothing Toys have been designed for two types of sensory preferences. Lyric The Fox™ is for those needing more sensation. Learn more about our Self-Soothing Toys here. Important: Always remove packaging before giving to a child and remove toys from the cot/bassinet before sleep.
- Those needing more sensation will often actively seek out new experiences and feelings – sometimes without taking a break. Introducing structure to activities can help. Visual timers or music are great tools that will enable your child to understand how long they have left for a certain activity.
What does needing less sensation look like?
Resistance to the below activities and experiences, or becoming overwhelmed in everyday situations might indicate that your child needs less sensation:
- Washing their hands.
- Brushing their teeth.
- Putting their shoes on.
- Getting dressed or undressed.
- The presentation or colour of food.
- New places or people.
How can I support my child who needs less sensation?
Children who need less sensation often struggle with loud noises, bright colours, touch and textures and unfamiliar situations.
Below, find common ways you can support children who need less sensation:
- Think about your child’s triggers. Can you reduce noise or smells at home? If possible, create a calming space for your child to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed.
- Find ways to calm your little one. For example, if they struggle with loud sounds, try reducing or muting noise where possible. If they’re seeking comfort, a blanket, toy, or something they like to smell can bring a sense of familiarity to the situation.
- Let friends and family know that your child finds certain situations difficult, this can help to prevent discomfort at future events.
- Our new Self-Soothing Toys have been designed for two sensory preferences. Stevie The Bunny™ is for those who need less sensation. Learn more about our Self-Soothing Toys here. Important: Always remove packaging before giving to a child and remove toys from the cot/bassinet before sleep.
What is sensory play?
Sensory play is any activity that stimulates your child’s senses: touch, sight, sound, taste, smell, body position and movement. It’s a great way to encourage learning through problem solving, creativity, and exploration.
Sensory play doesn’t have to be complicated. Playing with food, painting with fingers or using our Self-Soothing Toys are all great ways to engage with your child.
You can also ask questions to encourage your child to engage with their surroundings. For example, if you’re on a walk and they pick up a flower ask them: What does it feel like? What does it look like? What does it smell like?
By asking questions, you’re helping your little one to tune into different senses at the same time. You can adapt your language depending on the scenario.
Why is sensory play important?
It's through sensory play that your child learns how to interact with their surroundings. Your little one is learning before they can walk or talk, as they listen to our voices, touch different textures and objects, and play with toys.
This exploration builds new nerve connections in the brain, encourages the development of motor skills, and plays a crucial role in language acquisition.
Sensory play is also important for the development of the below functions:
- Problem solving.
- Thinking skills as well as creativity.
- Social interaction.
- Balance, movement, and spatial awareness.
At what age can you start sensory play?
You can start sensory play from birth. With a newborn, sensory play can be as simple as massage, tickles, or talking to them. As they grow and develop, you can adapt sensory play to suit their needs.
Below, discover the different ways in which you can engage with your little one over the years.
Singing, talking, bath time, massage, bouncing or hanging a colourful mobile for your baby to look at.
This might look like tummy time, reading to your little one or playing with food.
At this age, you can start to introduce games such as peek-a-boo, clapping or copying simple actions.
Sensory play just got even more fun. You can now start to introduce play dough, finger painting, exploring different foods, and crawling/walking on different textures.
How is sensory development linked to self-soothing?
Our sensory systems enable us to engage and interact with others through our seven senses - and we know these types of stimuli can help promote self-soothing.
Self-soothing is a fundamental life skill and will help your little one to learn how to manage their reactions and emotions such as anxiety, excitement, and sadness. It also helps children to settle back to sleep and is a crucial part of their everyday routine.
Comforters such as pacifiers and teethers are common ways in which parents encourage their children to self-soothe. But what makes our new Self-Soothing Toys so unique is that they have been designed for two different sensory preferences.
Read our self-soothing blog to learn more about which toy will best suit your child’s needs at certain times of the day. Important: Always remove packaging before giving to a child and remove toys from the cot/bassinet before sleep.
With you at every step, Love To Dream™ believes today’s little dreamers are the shapers of tomorrow. For further advice from our experts, visit our Sleep Library.
*Suitable for ages 0+. Soft toys should never be placed in the sleeping environment. Soft objects in the cot can be a suffocation risk. For more information, please visit Red Nose Australia, the leading authority on safe sleep.