I became a mother after I became an occupational therapist, and my knowledge of sensory integration influenced my parenting from day one. Today, I’m going to share some of what I did with my babies when they were very small. I have been blessed to parent both ends of the sensory child experience. My first was a high-needs, highly-sensitive child who was, and still is, hyper-responsive to sensory input. My second was the opposite of the first. As every second child seems to be. He is a sensory seeker who needed to be in motion and touch all the things.
Baby #1: Super Sensitive and High Needs
Let’s start by talking about my firstborn. Rae (children’s names have been changed to protect them from obnoxious baby stories) was labeled as having “colic” by six weeks old. This means she cried at least 3-4 hours every afternoon without being consoled. So. Much. Crying. She startled at every loud noise which made her cry more. Loud noises included doors shutting, the toilet flushing, water running, me sneezing, and her own farts.
When she was happy, she was a sweet, loving baby who wanted to be held. But only by me. No one else was acceptable for more than a few minutes. She needed me to help her regulate her sensory input and to be a constant for her. It was very hard on me to be all that she needed. If others held her for more than a few minutes, the inconsolable crying started and they quickly handed her back. Eventually, as she got older, other people, like her grandmother, became acceptable people for longer periods. However, calling her “slow to warm up” would be generous, as she needed to get to know a person for quite a while before deciding they were acceptable company.
Now, let’s talk about what I learned and how I survived.
First, I gave up all gassy foods, since I was breastfeeding. I tried giving up many different foods to see what would help. Many years later, we realized Rae had several food allergies and I never had given up all of her allergies during this phase. But at least giving up broccoli and cabbage meant she didn’t fart and scare herself half to death and spend the entire night crying over it.
Many natural, hippy mom books will tell you that you don’t need things like bouncy seats and baby swings. Some babies don’t need those, but some do. I realized eventually that Rae was easily overstimulated and this could even include me holding her. She needed to be put down some of the time, but she would freak out over feeling alone if put in her crib. Instead, she liked being in the bouncy seat some of the day, where she would watch me cook or do the dishes. I suspect the soft fabric stretched over the wireframe seat put less pressure on her body in general, so it was less sensory input for her to deal with, too. I set her up in her seat and talked to her and she could relax for a bit.
We also had a baby swing that was my go-to move for when she was overtired in the evenings and we were both out of patience. Swinging is recommended as a way to help regulate the sensory system, so I was all for using that to help her calm herself in the evening. She would be screaming and crying for all her tiny self was worth and I would put her in the swing, set it to slowly swing her, and step back. I eventually realized that even looking at me was too much sensory input, but she needed to know I was nearby. So, I would sit in a rocking chair in her room, and talk on the phone to a friend or my mother. I’d keep my voice calm, and then little Rae could hear me talk, know I was there but was in her own little sensory space. She would drift off to sleep. Once she was good and asleep, I could transfer her to her bassinet for a while.
How I Managed To Get Things Done
Realizing I had to help Rae regulate meant also that I realized she just couldn’t handle going places and doing things every day. If we went somewhere, even just the grocery store or park, two days in a row, she was a much crankier, difficult baby. So, I paced our week so that at least every other day, we just stayed home and let her sensory system rest. When we went out, I wore her in a baby carrier against my chest, so she could snuggle into me and didn’t have to look at the bright lights of the store or all the many things. Sometimes, she did want to peek out, but just a few minutes usually. This method helped her cope and allowed her to fold into me and rest, instead of screaming before I was even done shopping.
On days at home, I gave her baby massages and played soothing music around the house. I worked to provide appropriate stimulation so that her body would become used to normal life.
When Rae was tired, crying, and overstimulated, I would bounce and walk in a circle with her, all the while humming or singing wordlessly. I would pace our home, with her in my arms and a bounce in my step, singing this wordless song over and over, and eventually, she would calm down. This trick also somehow helped keep me calm, which was important.
Getting Through It
Having a high-needs baby is exhausting. Being cried at for hours and hours and knowing you’ve changed, fed, loved, and done all you can, and you just have to weather this storm, is hard. I would talk to Rae and tell her “You are so sad. Poor baby. ” or if the crying changed “You are so mad!” Recognizing that her feelings were part of her crying helped us both cope. By the time she was 18 months old, she could say for herself “Baby mad!”
Gradually, the crying in the evenings stopped and by the time she was 10 months old, I knew I was going to survive parenting her. However, she was still a high-needs baby. By then, we could go out two days in a row! But, there never did come a time we could do three days of outings without her having a meltdown. Never. She needed her downtime and still does.
While the crying stopped, the fact she was super sensitive didn’t. There were toddler tantrums that had to do with being overstimulated or overtired. There were also tantrums over scratchy clothes or food with the wrong textures. But we found our way.
Baby #2: Sensory Seeker and Mr. Go Go Go!
Now, let’s switch to my second child, let’s call him E. E was a large, strong baby. He could roll over at two weeks old! No, I’m not exaggerating. While my first hit physical milestones on the later side, E hit them all early. Aside from the day he was born, I can’t remember him crying unless he was hurt, and even then the crying rarely lasted long.
He loved the bouncy seat. Not because it was soft, but because he could kick and make it move. He loved to be put in his high chair while I did housework, but he needed lots of things on the tray to play with. Where Rae had been a timid baby, scared of noise, his goal seemed to be to beat things to find out what they were made of. Loud noises made him laugh. He was trying to grab the food off my plate when he was three months old. He was reaching, grabbing, and playing every minute.
With E, I never worried he was overstimulated. His problem was that he needed a lot of stimulation to be able to rest. He needed to be put on a blanket on the floor and allowed to roll around, try to crawl, and play with toys. He needed to go play outside. Thankfully, we had a swing-set in the yard for Rae by then, who was 5. The swing-set let her stay home and play where she felt safe while letting him get the input of swinging and crawling around the yard he craved.
The Struggles Were There, Just Different
The most challenging thing about E was getting him to settle down to sleep. He didn’t cry, he just wouldn’t be still and go to sleep. The only trick to getting him to sleep was nursing him while holding him still. Sometimes, I could just put my arms around him to help him be still. Sometimes, I had to be creative about how I positioned us and used my elbow to keep his legs from kicking while I held his hand. As he grew I had to get even more creative. But for him, bedtime couldn’t involve songs or bouncing, or any distraction. He would have distracted himself from sleeping if he could have.
My sensory-seeking baby loved riding in the stroller facing the world head-on! Which was nice, because he was a big baby, and my back didn’t mind getting a break from the baby carrier once he hit 20 pounds at 6 months old. He slept best if we’d had an exciting day of going places and doing lots of things. His brain needed to take in as much input as it could get. So I had to figure out how to accommodate that. It was tricky, as Rae still needed her downtime between things.
Finding The Balance
Thankfully, babies find lots of things novel and interesting, so on our days at home, E could play in the yard. Dig in the sandbox, play in a kiddie pool, or jump on the beds. But as a toddler, I needed to be sure to play with him, help him get that input, and make sure he was safe. Pain wasn’t a deterrent to him. He just didn’t feel pain as acutely as others, so even if something hurt, he was likely to try it again.
He was the child who used the high chair the most, as it was a place he could be contained and do the messy play he craved. He finger painted, then got a bath. He scribbled with crayons to see what would happen. He adored play dough. However, he was crazy, and I didn’t want the play dough shoved into the outlets, so all messy play had to be done where I could watch him closely. Strapping him into the high chair was the best way to not lose my mind, as he’d jump up and run away smearing finger paint on everything we owned if the opportunity arose.
He also adored dumping out things. Toys. Cereal from a full box. Salt or sugar making a big pile as it pours on the floor. Honey poured onto the carpet. The sound, the sight, the mess…. that was wonderful to him. I got the baby gates that kept even other adults out of my kitchen so that he couldn’t go make those messes. Had we not had a doorway that would hold a baby gate, we would have had to move. And let me tell you, the day he removed the baby gate himself, I can still taste my own fear and shock when I saw him do that.
With the sensory seeker, your best parenting choice is to feed the need and figure out how to babyproof like a pro. I really don’t have much more help to give.
Baby #3: Normal?
I do have a third child. Is she “normal?” I have no clue. But her sensory needs were never the extremes of her siblings. Thank goodness for that.
Honestly, if you have a child with an extreme version of SPD, Sensory Processing Disorder, you probably can’t tell what normal looks like. A child who just has needs that aren’t as severe looks “normal.” If you can meet their sensory needs, that is great. However, it is important to remember, that if one of your children has SPD, it is likely they all have some level of SPD. Not everyone with SPD responds the same way or has the same needs. I think we covered that. But the techniques you learn to cope with an SPD baby will benefit all your babies. Listening to your child’s sensory needs means that your child will be functioning at their best.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.