Episode 65 – Sensory Processing in babies
Meg: Welcome back, moms and dads. It is my great pleasure to be joining you again here today on the Sense Meg Faure podcast. Every week we are joined either by a guest who is another expert [00:01:00] or by a expert mom, a mom who is a seasoned mom dealing with her own little baby. Or sometimes we are joined by somebody who interviews me, but today is going to be different.
Meg: Today I’m gonna be chatting to you directly around a topic that’s very close to my heart, and that probably is the topic that I might be most well known for. And it’s certainly the one that I think drives an enormous amount of decision makings around parenting in general, and that is the topic of sensory processing and specifically sensory processing in babies.
Meg: Now, as parents, we all want to understand our babies. We want to help them thrive and really get the most out of them and do the best for them. And so by understanding how they process sensory information, it’s absolutely a key part in actually nurturing our little ones. So, sensory processing is, as I said, super, super close to my heart.
Meg: Today we’re going to be focusing on insights from my book, Baby Sense. And if you’re wanting to know more about what I’m talking about today, the places to go and look up about it are in the Baby Sense book, the Weaning Sense book [00:02:00] and you can go and have a look at my Meg Faure YouTube channel. And then we’ve actually got a Sensory Personality course, which is inside the Parent Sense app and that is probably the best place for you because that course actually goes into a lot of depth around early infant sensory processing. So a little bit of background about me for those of you who have not are new to the podcast, who haven’t listened before.
Meg: I’m an Occupational Therapist. I’m the mom of three. I founded a baby products company called Baby Sense many years ago, which I sold. I’m no longer involved there at all. I am the co-founder of Play Sense, where I am still involved and of course, the creator of the Parent Sense App. But mostly my biggest thing is that I’m just passionate about helping you to find solutions for your babies.
Meg: So, as you muddle your way through early parenting, and I do know that it’s a bit of a muddle sometimes because I’m a mum of three, it’s my pleasure and my privilege to come alongside you. So without further ado, after that introduction, let’s get started and let’s have a look at what sensory processing is and hard works in babies.
Meg: Now [00:03:00] the human brain is absolutely fascinating in that we have sensory signals or sensory nerves that taken information into our brain. And then we have motor neurons or motor nerves that allow us to act on the world. But in between the sensory processing coming in and this motor output going out is this incredible processor.
Meg: Really the very best process that we have in the world. No computer quite matches it yet. And that’s our brain. Now our brain works in an incredible way. Takes in sensory information absolutely all the time. So, as you are sitting there right now, listening to this podcast, you’re actually doing a whole lot of other things.
Meg: You might be driving and actually able to focus on a traffic light changing colors. You might be keeping an eye on your little ones as they play in little pond of water safely with you close by, and you’re able to do all of this because you’re taking in sensory information, you’re integrating the information in your brain, and then it creates an output or a behavior. And your current output or behavior is actually concentration and attention span because you are attending to this auditory input that’s coming in through the [00:04:00] podcast as an example.
Meg: Now this sensory information goes into the brain. It goes into a relay system in the brain called the thalamus, and the thalamus sorts out and integrates the information. So it takes the information that we are hearing, that we’re seeing, and puts it together and creates a picture. All the things that we feeling on our clothes, the smells in the environment.
Meg: So it takes in all of the sensory information that we take in through our eight senses. So I hear you asking eight senses? I thought there were five. Because of course we learned about five when we were at school. So there are the typical senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. And then of course, the three hidden senses, which is the sense of interception, which is from our organs.
Meg: So, if my heart starts to be fast or, if I feel hungry or if I feel if I’ve got reflux that’s interior reception, from the inside of our body. We’ve got the vestibular system, which is very linked to our auditory system. It’s in the inner ear, and it actually allows us to feel what direction we are moving in, how fast we’re moving, whether or not we upright or upside down, as an example. That’s our vestibular system. [00:05:00]
Meg: And then our eighth system is our proprioceptive system, which is arguably probably one of the most important, although I don’t think a loss of any of them would be fabulous for us. We all know that, you know, if you weren’t sighted or you couldn’t hear, it would be a massive loss. Our sense of smell when it was disrupted by Covid was a real hassle. But, really the sense of proprioception is super important. It comes from our muscles and joints. It gives us a sense of where our body is in space, but it’s also one of our most regulating sensory inputs. So as it comes into our brain, it helps us to regulate our state and our mood and so on.
Meg: So we’ve got these eight sensors that move through our brain. And at any given moment, everything is coming in. But of course, we are not attending to everything, and that’s because our brain decides that certain information that is coming in is just quite simply not important. So, for instance, my brain has decided that these clothes on my back are not important.
Meg: I can’t feel them at all anymore. But if this top that I’ve got on had a one of those little nylon label stubs somewhere in it that irritated my skin, I would then immediately orientate towards it.
Meg: And so our brain is [00:06:00] incredible in its ability to be able to filter out what’s not important and to truly attend to what is important. So of course, this is happening at any given moment in anybody’s brain, and including of course, your baby’s brain. Now, it is really, really important that the baby’s brain is able to filter out unimportant and irrelevant information. Like for instance, as I’ve described, the clothes on my back that I’ve already filtered out, the same has to happen for your baby. They have to filter out the clothes that they’re wearing. So examples of how babies filter out and important information, often babies will actually be able to filter out noise, and particularly in the early days in those first two weeks, what we call the honeymoon period when your baby was super little. They’re often able to kind of sleep through anything and maybe even your older babies able to do it, that you can have them actually sleep in a pram in the room that you are in with all the noise going on. So babies are able to filter out noises as an example. They are able to filter out the clothes on their backs.
Meg: And when your baby’s very little, and this certainly happened for me, my baby [00:07:00] would, after I’d taken out of the bath, she would scream because it was a, a change of temperature going from the warm bath into the cold air. And then as I put on her baby grow, she would also be crying. She didn’t like the sensation of getting dressed, but as she got used to it, she could filter it out and she was able to then settle. So this ability to kind of filter out unimportant information is super important. It’s also important, for instance, when your baby’s breastfeeding. If your baby’s lying at the breast and somebody walks into the room and speaks to you, they can continue to feed, or you speak on your phone, they continue to feed. And that’s because they’re filtering out all the auditory information. So, filtering out sensory information is very, very important for adults and for children.
Meg: Of course it’s also important that we don’t filter out everything because some sensory information’s really, really important. So some sensory information that goes on in our world is so important that we need to have a very quick and swift response to it.
Meg: So an example of that was when you, if you put your hand down flat on the, on a hot stove, that’s an instant reaction. And it’s so fast, it moves through to our brain so [00:08:00] quickly, and it does, it changes our alertness levels, so it makes us ready for flight and fright. So we get a fright. We might scream, and then obviously we pull our hand away.
Meg: And that’s super important. It’s protective. So what happens when we need to pay attention to important, urgent sensory information is that it raises our alertness level or our state. It’s also called our arousal level. And it’ll, it prepares us to be able to do something to action. Other sensory information isn’t urgent and important like that, but it is just important.
Meg: So for instance, tasting a flavor as an example. When your baby first starts to eat butternut as an example, they’re able to taste the butternut and they kind of like the taste and then they go ahead with it. Or they might initially actually pull a face and decide they don’t like it, and then eventually go on with it.
Meg: So it’s quite important that when relevant information is actually introduced to our sensory systems that we are aware of it and we can listen to it and we have the appropriate level of alertness. So that appropriate level of alertness is kind of the key. So the [00:09:00] appropriate level of alertness when your hands placed on a hot stove is like high alert, like, whoa, you know, I’ve gotta do something about this.
Meg: Whereas the appropriate level of alertness when I’m tasting butternut for the fourth or fifth time is, Hmm, this is yummy. I can keep going in, but I’m not gonna be like in flight or fright. I’m gonna just be able to tolerate it nicely. And so our brain is incredible. It’s super magical at being able to determine is this unimportant?
Meg: Can I ignore it? Is this super important? Do I need a high level of alertness to it, or is this something that I just need to take into consideration, like, for instance, my voice right now as you’re listening to it and have an appropriate level of arousal. So I hope you can see that in this first little introductory section, that sensory processing is innate in all of us.
Meg: It is super important for developing the state of arousal with which we are going to interact with the world, and it’s really important that we filter out sensory information as well as that we are alerted, so we need to be able to move quite seamlessly between filtering things out and responding as [00:10:00] appropriate.
Meg: So, let’s start to talk about how this process of filtering sensory information impacts our baby’s development and their little personalities. We know that each of us process sensory information slightly differently. So, you and your partner, you and your children, process it differently.
Meg: Some of us are much more alert. My three children are completely different. And some of us are much more what we call dormant. We don’t ne necessarily notice everything that’s going on. So this difference in our threshold determines our four different sensory personalities.
Meg: So, if you can imagine if we break this threshold into two camps. The first camp is the what we call a low threshold. So if you have a low threshold for sensory information, you are highly sensitive. So you have people who everything that goes on in the world is perceived, is noted, and there’s an action take on it because they have a low threshold.
Meg: So they tend to be a more sensitive people. And we’ll talk about the sensory personalities just now, but the [00:11:00] other threshold, the second threshold is a very high threshold. So, children and adults even who have a high threshold mean that a lot can be going on in their world before they actually notice what’s going on.
Meg: So a lot of noise, a lot of smells, a lot of movement, and they don’t really responded or really notice it. So there, you’ve got your high threshold and your low threshold. Now, within these high threshold and low threshold scenarios, you get two personalities each. So if you’ve got a very low threshold for sensory information, that is somebody who is much more sensitive, that ends up in two different types of sensory personality.
Meg: The sensory sensitive and the slow warm up. So your sensory sensitive obviously is much more sensitive to everything that’s going on, and they tend to react to the world as if it was a hot plate all the time. So everything feels like an emergency. Everything feels like it could be dangerous, and they tend to be a lot more fussy as babies.
Meg: So that’s your first sensory personality, your more sensitive sensory personalities. And they tend to be a lot more sensitive to everything that’s going on and a lot more fussy. They [00:12:00] tend to not be fabulous feeders in the beginning. So they really are your more tricky little ones. Then you’ve got your slow to warm up little ones.
Meg: Now your slow to warm up also has a low threshold and they were also sensitive initially, but they work out that actually not everything is a hot plate. Not everything is in an emergency. And so they managed to actually filter out sensory information after a while and they warm up to situations. So initially they might over respond to things, but once they’ve warmed up, they tend to engage quite happily, on a sensory level.
Meg: So those are your first two sensory personalities. On the other side, which is your very high threshold for sensory information. In other words, a lot goes on without you not noticing it, without you noticing it. You’ve got two sensory personalities. The one is your settled or serene personality or dormant.
Meg: So lots goes on. They don’t even notice a super laid back and your other one is your social butterfly. Now your social butterfly, also has a high threshold, but when they know that there might be something interesting going on, they tend to seek it out. So they seek sensory [00:13:00] information and they seek social engagement because it really feeds their need, feeds their little engine.
Meg: So these four sensory personalities really do determine a baby’s development. We tend to see that babies who are more sensitive and slow to warm up, tend to be a little bit more, precocious in terms of their milestones.
Meg: In other words, they achieve their milestones slightly earlier because a lot of sensory information has gone in, and so they’re able to develop the muscle tone. Engage with their world, pick up the language, that type of thing. So they tend to potentially be a little bit more precocious, whereas your more high threshold child who’s more dormant, a lot’s going on and they haven’t even noticed.
Meg: So they might have slightly lower tone, they might have slightly later language just because they are just a whole lot more laid back. So that is an example of how this process of sensory information really can impact a baby’s development. Now you might be wondering, if we have these different personalities, why is it that some babies do filter more and some babies do filter less?
Meg: You know, like [00:14:00] why does that happen? And there’s some kind of key drivers for that. One of them is our genetics. So very often if you’ve got a more sensitive parent, one of the kiddies will be more sensitive as well. Or if you’ve got a sensory seeker like I do, my husband, one of my children is like that as well.
Meg: So very often it is somewhat genetic, but there’s also situations that can actually push you into a higher or lower sensory threshold. So an example is a prem baby. You know, premature babies are born into a very different world. They don’t have that soothing womb space for the last, let’s say eight weeks of pregnancy.
Meg: And so they tend to be a little bit more sensitive. And so we see the sensitive profile a lot more in our little ones who’ve had, who’ve either been born prem or also those that have been ill and have had lots of noxious input in the first few months of their life. So if there’s been a lot of like heel pricks and needles and things like that, babies tend to be a lot more sensitive.
Meg: And that’s because, I mean, you can imagine just if you think about you after a cesarean section or when you’ve got a migraine, like your sensory [00:15:00] sensitivity for everything is on alert. You’re much more sensitive to everything just because of pain. So pain is one of the things that can also drive our filter up or down.
Meg: And then stress also does it, moms and dads. You know, I don’t know about you, but I certainly found the first few weeks of, of being a new mom was fairly stressful. I was kind of pushed out of my comfort zone. And when in that stress space, my sensory threshold then got lower as well.
Meg: So I became more sensitive. I, anyway, have a low sensory threshold. And I do tend to be more slow to warm up. That’s my sensory profile, but it became even more so. So I needed even more control and more order just after my babies were born because I was out of my depth and I was a little bit stressed.
Meg: And after my third, I’ve had a caesar as well, so I was in pain. So the, all of those things can contribute to our sensory profile. So obviously, getting to know your baby and understanding their profile is important. It’s, it’s one of the things that can really help you to connect with your baby.
Meg: And a lot of what is early parenting is actually connecting with our baby, learning to read their [00:16:00] signals, understanding their state, being able to adjust our own parenting behaviors to what our little ones need. So it’s a big, big piece. And it’s a field called reflective parenting. And reflective parenting is that kind of ability to read your baby’s signals and to know what’s going on for your baby.
Meg: And in that way just your parenting style to them. So reflective parenting is very powerful. It’s, it really is amazing. There’s, I mean, if you wanna know more about it, it, it is an area of, of research you should look up. It’s super interesting. But parents with high reflective function tend to have little ones who are more emotionally stable.
Meg: Tend to have little ones who have less adolescent delinquency. In fact, they’ve even tied it to less drug addictions. So there’s a lot of reasons why long term we want to have given our babies the base of good reflective function early on. So one of the ways we can develop good reflective function and learning to understand our babies is through understanding their sensory personality.
Meg: And I mentioned it earlier on in the podcast, but if you haven’t done my [00:17:00] sensory personality course, it is really, really worthwhile doing it because the sensory personality course will help you to understand which of the sensory personalities your baby fits into. And then in the app, we actually give you a toolkit for if your baby is sensory sensitive, this is how you must manage feeding, sleep, pay time, or whatever.
Meg: So we give you strategies for each of those personalities. So pop on over and, and download the Parent Sense app. And inside the courses section you’ll be able to do the course on sensory personality.
Meg: So, I thought now what we would do is we just get into a little bit of the practicalities and how sensory processing impacts things like feeding sleep and development and, and just have a look at, you know, the different areas of impact that can be seen.
Meg: So understanding that sensory personality or sensory processing affects our baby’s personality and interaction. It’s kind of logical that it’s also going to affect something like they’re feeding. And if you just think about feeding, feeding is a super sensory laden and activity, I mean, particularly breastfeeding.
Meg: So breastfeeding, you’ve gotta be skin to skin against somebody. You’ve got to then feel where their nipple is with your mouth. You’ve then gotta have the smell of their breasts and their body and potentially their underarms and whatever you’re closest to, right up against you. It’s a [00:19:00] lot of touch and a lot of smells and then of course the taste of the milk and then the sounds of the parent as they hold you as well.
Meg: So you can just see in that little vignette is exactly how sensory laden feeding is. Now, bottle feeding is also full of different sensory information. Obviously, the temperature of the milk changes and the flavor, there’s also the holding, and so on. And then obviously when you start solids, it’s a sensory assault because all you’ve been used to is like bland milk and now suddenly you’ve got all these flavors, textures and temperatures that are new and colors on your plate.
Meg: So, you know, feeding is a very sensory laden activity in a baby’s life. Now what we find with feeding is that babies who are more sensitive, they do tend to have some difficulties with feeding.
Meg: For instance, they might struggle with the sensation of the nipple inside their mouth. And so one of the things that often happens there is that the little one just doesn’t take to breastfeeding easily. They battle at the breast. They don’t like the being in such close proximity. And sometimes these very sensory sensitive little ones actually do better on a [00:20:00] bottle because it’s a little bit less sensory invasive.
Meg: And in my practice, I saw some little ones who fed best when they were lying on their own, in their own space out of their mom’s arms, and were were fed that way. Now, of course this is absolutely not a reason to go and give up breastfeeding, if that’s what your method of feeding that you’ve chosen.
Meg: But I think for parents who sometimes have ended up bottle feeding, it’s nice to know that actually maybe this wasn’t something that came from you, but actually something that came from your baby that they just really weren’t necessarily ever going to take to to breastfeeding. On the other hand, once they’ve taken to the nipple, these little ones can often get stuck on the nipple.
Meg: In other words, they never ever want to move onto any other form of nipples. So going from skin and onto a rubber or latex teat really bothers them so they don’t love moving between breast and bottle. Whereas your little ones who less sensitive are quite happy to move between breast and bottle and whatever. They don’t mind.
Meg: Another area of challenge that can sometimes come up is obviously your weaning. The weaning journey can be absolutely fraught with our sensory sensitive [00:21:00] little ones because there’s a new color to deal with, there’s a new temperature food, and there’s obviously the texture and so they might end up gagging a lot.
Meg: So we tend to see that with feeding, it really can be impacted by sensory processing. Of course your little one with a low threshold is often very happy to either switch between bottle and breast when they move on to solids, they love it. And one of the challenges you might find with them is they actually start to go off milk very quickly because milk is boring, you know?
Meg: So why would I want to stay on a milk diet? I want to rather have this brightly colored carrot, the tastes of cumin or whatever it flavors you put in it so you can really use their sensory personality to advance and improve their solids journey as well.
Meg: And if you want more information on that, the book Weaning Sense goes into a huge amount of detail on exactly that topic. So there you can see a snapshot of how sensory processing really does impact feeding as well.
Meg: Now of course, sensory processing can also affect sleep patterns. It can play a role in whether or not your baby falls [00:22:00] asleep with ease and whether or not they stay asleep.
Meg: So, for example, little ones who are sensitive to touch might be easily disturbed by the feeling of their clothes or blankets against their skin. And very often for these babies, they’re the ones who kick their blankets off, don’t like any coverings on them. So one of the nice strategies that I like to use with more sensory sensitive babies for sleep is first of all, if they little is to swaddle them because that deep pressure of swaddling is much more containing than light touch of blankets.
Meg: So let me give you some logic here because you’re probably thinking it’s the same thing. You’ve got a blanket and why would it be any different? So it works on two different systems. So when you have a little light blanket over yourself or sheet over yourself. Every time you move, you can just picture yourself kind of moving under the sheet or the sheet moving over you. And as you do that, it triggers what is called your touch system. So your light touch system usually, but your touch system. And your touch system actually moves to the brain in what’s called the anterior lateral tract of the spinal column up to [00:23:00] the brain. And it’s quite alerting, which is why it can wake you up.
Meg: Whereas swaddling is totally different. So swaddling is much deeper. It’s like a deep containment that kind of holds a baby in a position. And when a baby moves, it start to move against the swaddle in and the resistance. It’s much more like being in the womb. Now that is not so much touch as pressure.
Meg: And our pressure receptors move up a different column up to the brain called the dorsal column, and that is much more regulating and helps babies to sleep better. So swaddling can really help with the babies who’s super sensitive to blankets as an example. The other thing with sleep is that obviously babies might be woken very easily. If there’s noise in the environment. And so one of the strategies if we like to use with little ones is to use white noise. Because white noise will mask out other sounds in the environment. So instead of hearing the dog bark two houses away, they’re just hearing the white noise in their room, playing in the background. So white noise is an example of how to improve sleep.
Meg: And then finally, how does [00:24:00] sensory processing affect development? So babies’ overall development is impacted through sensory processing because it allows them to learn from and make sense of the world around them. But babies who have difficulty processing sensory information often do struggle with certain developmental milestones.
Meg: So, for example, if a baby, um, hypersensitive to touch. They might avoid certain textures, and sensations, for instance, if they’re put onto their tummy, that’s quite a, you know, it’s an all body touch experience and if you’re rolling, it’s an even more all body touch experience. And if you’re crawling, you’re pushing up on your hands and your hands are having to take that experience.
Meg: And so they might be babies who actually avoid rolling and crawling us as examples. And if your baby is hyposensitive to sensory information, maybe not all the sensory information is going in. And so that their developmental milestones might be not delayed, but a little bit slower. So sensory processing does affect baby’s overall development, and their achievement of milestones.
Meg: So I hope this has given you a little bit of a [00:25:00] snapshot. As I mentioned, if you’re wanting more information, do go and get my book Baby Sense. There’s also a lovely book written by a PhD in Chicago called Lisa Elliot. And her book is What’s going on in there. It’s a great book that talks about sensory processing.
Meg: And then of course there’s the sensory personality course, which is inside the app. So do go and have a look at that.
Meg: So in summary today, we have explored how sensory processing works in babies and how it impacts their development. We have learned that every baby is completely unique and that their sensory experiences are different according to their sensory thresholds.
Meg: We’ve also spoken about how important it is to get to know your individual baby, because when you do that, you then develop reflective function. And by knowing more about your baby, you’re able to connect with them better. So there are a number of reasons why you do want to advance this body of knowledge within your own mind.
Meg: So we’ve talked about it. We’ve talked about some practical tips. And I really appreciate you joining me here today. I hope that you found it useful. If you’ve enjoyed today’s podcast, please [00:26:00] do go and rate the podcast and do share it with your friends. It certainly is something that has changed my parenting journey as I’ve gone along.
Meg: Thank you everybody, and I will see you back again next week.