What Is A Sensory Diet? 

If you are unfamiliar with sensory diets, you are probably thinking a sensory diet is about eating and food? No, it is not food. it is a sensory activity diet. 

A sensory diet is a term that is used in occupational therapy. It refers to a set of sensory activities and strategies designed to regulate and meet the sensory needs of a child. 

A child's sensory needs vary greatly, and a sensory diet can be beneficial for a wide range of children, including those with sensory processing disorder, autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Some children may experience difficulties in regulating and processing sensory information, leading to challenges in daily activities and behaviors.
what is a sensory diet sensory processing disorder child climbing doing a sensory activity

The primary goal of a sensory diet is to help children achieve and maintain an optimal level of arousal, attention, and engagement in everyday activities. It can also help them develop a more adaptive response to sensory stimuli, improve their self-regulation skills, and promote better emotional and behavioral control. A sensory diet can benefit children in various areas, such as improving their motor skills, attention span, social skills, and self-esteem.

A sensory diet is incorporating sensory activities and techniques into a child's daily routine. These sensory activities are designed to provide the right amount and type of sensory input to help the child feel more comfortable and in control. 

The first step in creating a sensory diet is to identify a child's sensory preferences and sensitivities. This can be done through a consultation with an occupational therapist or other professionals who work with the child.

Once the sensory symptoms and challenges are identified by your child's Occupational Therapist, a sensory diet can be carefully planned, taking into consideration the child's daily schedule and abilities. 

Sensory diets can include a wide range of activities, such as heavy work activities (e.g., carrying heavy objects), movement activities (e.g., jumping on a trampoline), deep pressure activities (e.g., hugging or squeezing), and sensory play (e.g., playing with different textures). The key is to find activities that are enjoyable and engaging for the child while providing the necessary sensory input.

Morning wake-up routine: This can include activities such as jumping on a mini-trampoline, doing wall push-ups, or crawling through a tunnel to help a child wake up and get ready for the day.

Classroom sensory breaks: Children can take sensory breaks throughout the day to help them stay focused and regulate their energy levels. These breaks can include activities such as swinging, squeezing a stress ball, or using a weighted blanket.

Sensory-rich mealtime: Eating can be a sensory experience for children, and incorporating different textures and flavors into their meals can help stimulate their senses. For example, adding crunchy vegetables or chewy foods to a meal can provide oral sensory input.

Sensory playtime: Play is an essential part of a child's development, and incorporating sensory play activities can be beneficial. This can include playing with sensory bins filled with different materials, such as beans, sand, or rice.

When it comes to children and sensory diets, it is so important to remember that every child is unique, and what works for one child may not work for another. It is essential to consult with an occupational therapist and monitor the child's response to the sensory activities to make any necessary adjustments. It is also essential to involve the child in the process and allow them to have a say in their sensory diet. This can help them develop self-awareness and self-regulation skills. 

A sensory diet is a valuable tool that can help children regulate their sensory needs and improve their daily functioning. By identifying a child's sensory preferences and incorporating appropriate sensory activities into their daily routine, a sensory diet can have a positive impact on a child's physical, emotional, and behavioral development. With proper guidance and monitoring, a sensory diet can be a beneficial and enjoyable experience for children.

Sensory Processing Disorder Types Of Sensory Input 

1. Tactile-what you feel (touch).

2. Visual-what you see.

3. Auditory-what you hear.

4. Gustation-what you taste.

5. Olfactory-what you smell.

6. Proprioception-body awareness. This is the ability to know where you are without using your sight. If you close your eyes and touch your nose successfully that’s because of your proprioceptive system.

7. Vestibular-where you are in space, this input comes from movement and head position. Your vestibular system lets you know if you are upright or hanging upside down.
little girl sensory processing disorder eight sensory systems 8 senses

8. Interoception-how you ‘feel’. This is input that lets you know you are hungry, thirsty, need to use the restroom, that your heart is beating fast, that you are hot or cold, etc.

Two sensory diet approaches

You can think about performing a sensory diet and/or providing sensory input in two ways.

One is more reactive and the other proactive. I encourage you to use each of these approaches.

First, we will discuss the reactive approach.

Performing an activity and getting an immediate effect.

It’s like when you have a headache and you take medication to get relief from the discomfort. 

In the sensory world, you would see that your child struggling to stay regulated, they may start to display sensory seeking or avoiding behaviors. You then would assist to provide the appropriate input to help meet their sensory needs at that moment.

This strategy is very beneficial. It can help a child reengage when they have become overstimulated or dysregulated. It can improve behavior in certain situations, improve focus and attention which allows for greater success in their daily activities.

Use this strategy often, observe your child and make notes of their needs and what activities help them regulate.

The other approach is Proactive.

Performing a sensory diet to improve overall sensory processing for the long term.

Also used to help prepare for a challenging sensory experience.

Let’s return to our headache example. In the proactive approach, it would be working on the muscle tension that causes your headaches to help prevent future ones.

In the sensory world, you would be engaging your child in a sensory diet regularly, even when they are not displaying a ‘need’.

The goal is to help them stay regulated and reduce the fluctuating behaviors that can occur with sensory processing. You do this by providing them with what they need before they even know they need it.

With this strategy, you may know your child seeks heavy work or proprioceptive input, so you work in sensory breaks during the day performing activities to get proprioceptive input, to help them stay regulated.

Let's look at an example.

Perhaps your kid gets overwhelmed at the grocery store. Maybe they have outbursts, cry, try to run away, touch things that they shouldn't, etc. Obviously, this can make shopping very challenging. It may result in you avoiding the store altogether with your child.

The reactive strategy would be seeing the behaviors come out while in the grocery store and then providing the sensory input to help your child calm down, regulate, and continue shopping.

The proactive strategy may look like providing your child some focused sensory input before going into the grocery store. The goal is to give them the input they need to help prepare them for the difficult activity. Providing the input prior can help them be better regulated before even starting the task.

Again, neither strategy is right or wrong, and most likely you will utilize both. Providing input prior, but then providing quick sensory breaks as needed during a task or activity.

It’s important to learn which activities help bring your child back into that ‘just right state’. Put those tools in your toolbox and use them as needed throughout the day.

Perform a sensory diet regularly, the more a child is exposed to different sensory inputs the better able they are to process it successfully.

The key to a successful sensory diet is finding the activities that work for you and your child.

Make it fun! Performing a sensory diet should be an enjoyable part of your day. Incorporate sensory activities and games into your child’s regular play and get creative. 

If your child is a seeker, they typically want more sensory input.
 If your child is an avoider they struggle with certain inputs, can become overwhelmed, or not engage with certain activities.

For the seeker, we want to provide the right input to fulfill their needs and help with regulation.

For the avoider, we want to help them process sensory input easier, and work to desensitize to inputs that are. difficult.

When the sensory needs of a child are met this allows them to be more engaged, successful, and focused. Instead of using their energy to meet their own sensory needs, they will be able to put that energy elsewhere.

We know that over time with continued exposure to different sensory inputs (performing a sensory diet) a child’s nervous system can adapt and become more successful at processing sensory input. This happens due to neuroplasticity.

by Katie Bartlow, OT  

DISCLAIMER: I am not an Occupational Therapist. I am an adult who has Sensory Processing Disorder, a sensory parent and a Grandma. The information on this website is not medical advice and does not replace the information that your child's therapists gives you. These are just ideas and information that I have learned myself over the years of being a parent and an adult living with SPD. If you are concerned for your child, please always seek medical attention through a family doctor, pediatrician or therapist. This website is for suggestions and informational purposes only. Each child is different and what works for one child may not for another because all children have different needs. Please always consult with a professional.

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