Understanding Sensory-Sensitive Babies

Understanding Sensory-Sensitive Babies | S2 Ep72

In this episode Meg explores “Understanding Sensory-Sensitive Babies”, offering insights, strategies, and support for parents.

Introducing Sensory Sensitivity

Meg Faure, an experienced occupational therapist in sensory integration, introduces baby sensory sensitivity. She emphasizes her expertise and commitment. Addressing parents’ emotional struggles, she promises guidance in identifying sensory sensitivity, understanding its origins, and offering solutions.

Managing your Sensory-Sensitive Baby

Sensory-sensitive babies react intensely, struggling with activities due to sensory overload. Meg suggests calming routines and environments to alleviate this impact.

Furthermore, she recommends strategies like reducing sensory inputs and introducing techniques such as baby massage, deep pressure, and white noise.

Professional Guidance and Support

In the final segment, Meg underscores professional guidance and emotional support. She discusses how a sensory diet—structured sensory experiences throughout the day—contributes to self-regulation. She also addresses the emotional toll on parents, advocating for open communication and external support.

For more insights and advice on caring for your sensory-sensitive infant, download the Parent Sense app. It offers expert guidance and personalized recommendations for confident parenthood.

Summing up, Meg Faure’s podcast “Understanding Sensory-Sensitive Babies” equips parents with knowledge, practical strategies, and emotional support for their sensory-sensitive infants. By understanding the impact of sensory sensitivity, recognizing signs, and implementing effective management, parents can navigate this journey more adeptly.

Guests on this show

Meg faure

Meg Faure

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Meg Faure: Welcome back mums and dads. My name is Meg Faure and I’m your host on Sense by Meg Faure. And it’s always my delight to be here with you. I’m sharing some of the wisdom and some thoughts that I have on [00:01:00] little ones. Sometimes I have other mums come on with me and we talk about what’s been plaguing them that week, what the joys and delights of new parenting brings. But we also talk about all of the things that are really tough and we get super real on this podcast. 

Then sometimes we have experts who come alongside me. We’ve recently had Kath McGaw and Nadine Kuyper, who is an educational psychologist. And we’ve had some really amazing experts who’ve come alongside me to just share their wisdom.

But then occasionally we have a session that is just me. So you get me all to yourself today. And today I’m going to talk about something that’s really close to my heart and these topics generally focus on the sensory world of the baby, that being my speciality. For those of you who don’t know who I am and are new to this podcast, I am an occupational therapist.

My specialization is in sensory integration. So that is my first love. Actually the first postgraduate diploma and course that I did was in sensory babies and the sensory systems, really sensory processing and what we call sensory [00:02:00] integration. I then went on to study techniques, and then went on to focus quite heavily on the emotional world of a baby through the World Association of Infant Mental Health.

So that’s my background. And today I’m going to pull actually on a lot of the knowledge that I’ve gleaned from all of these areas, as we start to talk about sensory sensitive little ones. 

So if you do have a sensory sensitive baby, it is a very, very tough journey, particularly in the early days. And, particularly, if this is your first child. The reason for that is that sensory sensitive babies often make us feel like failures as parents, they make us feel like we have to be doing something wrong. Now, over many years in my practice I would have moms and dads who brought their very sensory sensitive little ones to see me.

I remember one little boy who was just so, so niggly. I think he was about five months old and had cried pretty consistently for the first five months of life. And when I explained to his mom that he had sensory sensitivity and what we were going to do about [00:03:00] it, her eyes just welled up with tears and she started to sob and she said: “why have I never known about this? You know, all along I’ve been feeling like it’s me, that I’m the first time mom that didn’t know what I was doing. Everybody else seemed to have it right. And I just didn’t. I was failing.” 

And that message from that mom is very, very common in parents with sensitive babies. They feel like they must be doing something wrong because their babies don’t do what everybody else’s babies do.

Other babies take dummies. They settle with swaddling. They love to look at the outdoor world as they take a walk outside and sensory sensitive babies do none of this. They really are very niggly and the normal techniques that are used to soothe babies just don’t work as well with our sensory sensitive babies.

And so this is a really, really tough space for moms to find themselves in looking after a sensory sensitive little one. So in today’s podcast, that is exactly what we’re going to be looking at. We’re going to be looking at these sensory sensitive babies why it is that a baby would be sensory sensitive and what sensory [00:04:00] sensitivity looks like. And most importantly, for many of you, what we can do about it. 

 So let’s kick off. We know that our sensory systems are functioning absolutely all of the time. Our brain takes in sensory information in any given moment into our brain and we process the sensory information in our brain and we habituate or clear out information that we just don’t need to know about and that we don’t need to be sensitized to.

habituation just Doesn’t seem to work that well. And we see it quite typically in our autistic population, in the children who are on the spectrum. And sometimes with ADHD little ones, they can also be seen as sensory sensitive and sometimes just in typically developing population. We see little ones who super sensitive.

What does it look like? Well, these little ones tend to over respond to everything. So if a door slams close by, they’ll suddenly just start screaming and then be completely unconsolable. I will never forget one day in my [00:05:00] practice many years ago and a little one who came in and she was just toddling.

She was kind of like 18 months old, just toddling through the room and kind of moving through my therapy space. And there was a little raised therapy mat. And as she was going along very, very happily she, and she wasn’t overtired or overstimulated. She just happened to trip over it and fall onto her knees onto a soft therapy mat.

And I could just see her mother. Bristling and waiting and sure enough, seconds later, this absolute awful down screaming started and that screaming was completely inconsolable. Now you can see that that response was completely out of kilter and out of sync with what had actually happened in that moment.

That was a little bump on her knees. And now she’d made it all awful down. Now, what happened there was that her sensory system and the sensory system that takes sensory information from her knees or her skin to the brain was not habituating or filtering out this information. [00:06:00] So what happens when you fall on your knees, for instance, is it a, you’re one of your touch receptors, probably in this case, a nursery receptor, which is, which is a pain receptor is triggered.

There could be other receptors like receptors for temperatures, for example, or receptors for pressure. But in this case, a pain receptor was triggered and it shoots a little instruction up the brain up the spinal cord to the brain. And that tracked up the spinal cord is the anterior lateral system.

And it goes up to the brain and it tells your brain, hold on, something terrible has happened. I have hurt my knees. Now what happens under normal circumstances is that somewhere along this channel, all the way from your peripheral nervous system to your central nervous system, there’s some dampening down of the messages to say, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.

We don’t have to pass this message on and we don’t have to amplify this message. You’re okay. And when it gets to the brain, the brain references what’s going on as well through the visual system and through the auditory system and through the various other systems. And also says, actually. That’s not so bad.

It’s all right. And dampens down the information. And so we get [00:07:00] this dampening or habituation of the sensory signal. And so we can ignore it. And quite shortly afterwards, that pain recedes and we’re able to get on with life. Now, with the sensory sensitive little one, that pain doesn’t recede. Something that shouldn’t be noxious is suddenly something that is deeply painful and really very sore to them because they don’t have this habituation process.

Compounded on top of that is that many sensory sensitive little ones really battle to self regulate their emotions. So once they’re having an all fall down or a cry, a big cry they can’t regroup. They can’t self soothe and no method of self soothing works either. And so we end up in the cycle of a little one who’s really, really super, super fussy and very irritable and maybe having a disproportionate level of reaction to the things that are going on in the environment.

So what we typically see with these little ones is that it tends to impact all the different areas of their daily living. And so if we think about the daily living of a baby and of a young child, it’s how they sleep, how they [00:08:00] feed, how they play, how they develop. And all of these areas are impacted when you have a sensory sensitive little one.

So for instance, they typically are very poor feeders and every feeding stage can actually bring a challenge. So your first feeding stage is obviously breastfeeding. And very often for these sensory sensitive ones, the sensory world of breastfeeding is a very, very sensory laden experience. So there’s a lot going on.

I’ve got to smell my mother’s body. I’ve got to be against her and skin to skin. She might even be playing with my hair while I’m trying to feed. There’s the taste of the milk. There’s the flavor of the milk because breast milk is flavored by what the mom has eaten. And there’s the flow of the breast milk coordinating how quickly it comes out.

You can’t coordinate with breast milk and that fore can flow fast. And so all of this together can be completely overwhelming. And instead of being able to habituate any of these individual sensory experiences. The brain doesn’t habituate it. And so the sensory sensitive baby is very sensitive when they’re breastfeeding.

And for some of you, that might’ve [00:09:00] meant that you had a really tricky start to breastfeeding. You know, your baby fought the breast didn’t conform to your body. Didn’t like to breastfeed arch their back when they were against you. Didn’t do they suck, swallow, breathe well, which is the ability to suck and then swallow and then breathe without choking.

So the sensory sensitive babies tend to battle with breastfeeding. If you persist and you move through it, they will often settle into breastfeeding, but then when they need to move on to bottles, that’ll be a whole nother issue. And so they’ll be very, very hesitant to move on to bottles because it’s again, new flavors, new temperatures, new sensation of the teat in the mouth and so on. And so with each different stage of milk feeding there are challenges, And then of course, as you can imagine, when you go on to solids, there’s a whole nother realm of sensory information that can be super disorganizing for them.

So new textures, new colors, like bright orange carrot on a plate that I’ve then got to swallow with lumps and a different flavor to breast milk. And so the sensitive sensory sensitive babies tend to be quite [00:10:00] poor feeders when they start to wean, and then they get stuck on what works. So they will get stuck on only very, very smooth porridge or pear puree and particularly jarred foods because they’re a little bit less textured and colorful and flavorful than our homemade food.

So sensory sensitive babies tend to have difficulties when it comes to feeding. They also tend to have difficulties often when it comes to sleeping, because you can imagine in order to sleep well, you’ve got to be able to tolerate the feel of your pajamas on your body. You’ve got to be able to tolerate the feel of a blanket on you.

You’re going to maybe be able to be swaddled. You’ve got to be able to sleep through the dog barking five blocks away and all of these things you can habituate out and you can sleep through. But if you are sensory sensitive, of course, you can’t necessarily sleep through all of these things. So we can see how sensory sensitivity is something that really does impact on newborns brains and even young babies brains.

Now, this changes as we move through life, and so some little ones are very sensitive in the early days, the first three [00:11:00] months. And then they settle down and they become absolutely settled later on. So they might start off sensory sensitive and move into being more settled. And an example of that will often be a baby who was born premature, for instance.

So our premature baby has got a very sensitive neurological system and it takes time for them to be able to actually settle into their world. And once they’ve settled into their world, their sensory sensitivity can settle. Likewise, if a baby has been in extreme amounts of pain in the early days they can be very, very fussy and irritable because pain makes us more sensitive in general.

You know that, if you’ve ever had a headache and a door slams, it’s like, Oh my goodness, that’s jarring on my nerves. And of course that’s because we are being sensory sensitive. So pain can also mean that somebody starts off really sensitive and then changes to be a little bit more settled later on.

For many babies, once we get past three or four months of age, those sensory systems and how you respond to the world are quite laid down. So if your baby is four months old and is still super sensory sensitive it [00:12:00] could be that that is going to be the approach for life. And that doesn’t mean that there’s going to be dysfunction because as an occupational therapist, we always look for really optimal function in the, in the face of any conditions, in the face of any situations.

So sensory sensitivity really can be tricky for feeding. It can be. Tricky for sleep. And then the one that people often ask me about is what about colic? For many babies, they are colicky in the first three months. But if your little ones colic doesn’t settle after three months and continues off into four months and maybe even five months, you probably are potentially looking at a little one who is sensory sensitive.



Meg Faure: So how do we start to deal with this? Well, there are a couple of ways that we do that. First of all, we want to be able to calm down the world. And with these sensory sensitive little ones, the little adage less is more is very pertinent. So less going on in the environment, less saturated color, less loud noises, less scratchy clothes and just less of everything often works very well. And so you need to establish a environment where your little one can thrive because there is less going on. So don’t have the TV on in the background while you are busy trying to feed your baby or speak to them, for instance, because it’s enough for them to be dealing with the feeding, not to have to deal with the sound that’s going on in the environment.

Same as if you’re feeding your sensory sensitive baby, don’t talk [00:14:00] to them or stroke their head if you breastfeeding them. Actually just leave them all well alone and let them just get on with the task of feeding. So try and stick to muted everything. Muted sounds, muted flavors, muted sensations, muted smells, and so on so that they can actually take to the world a little bit easier.

So that’s the first thing. And then of course you can challenge them later on. So you might want to add in a little bit of a challenge later where they do have two modalities going like that they’re listening to something and they’re having to look at something. So that’s for instance, book reading, when you start to look at a book and you talk to them at the same time.

So they do become multi multi modal at a later stage that they can actually respond to information through different sensory systems. But in the early days in particular, you’ve got to take it easy and you’ve got to take it slow. Another thing that really works well with sensory sensitive little ones is to have a really good routine for the day.

Because routines create predictability, first of all, for you. So you know that [00:15:00] when your little one is crying, it’s because they’ve maybe overtired rather than that they just are hungry or, or overstimulated. But the main reason is that routines actually do prevent overstimulation. So by having very regular sleeps, you almost reset your baby’s sensory load throughout the day.

So if you haven’t already downloaded the Parent Sense app it really is worthwhile going to do that. You can find it on either of the app stores and inside the Parent Sense app, there is a little routine for every single day, and you can actually track your baby’s information. And by tracking it, you’ll end up actually having an adjusted routine or what we call a Responsive Routine that adjusts to your baby’s day.

Now when you have those routines in place it really is very, very helpful with sensitive babies. So less is more uni modality, not too much going on through the sensory systems. Routines are really, really important as well. Then there’s certain sensory information which is actually calming that should be added in.

So an example of that would be lavender oil. So the smell [00:16:00] of lavender oil in a bedroom just before bedtime is much more calming than, for instance, the alerting smell of… Lemons and neroli oil and, and, you know, all of these citrus oils. So try and focus on having calming sensory information.

A dark room is another example. I mean, all the way through until your toddler is having nightmares, which hopefully doesn’t happen, but when it does happen, they’ll need a nightlight. But until then don’t have a nightlight, make the room as dark as possible because your sensory sensitive baby is likely to sleep better in a very dark room.

Another nice strategy is to use swaddling in the early days. Swaddling is amazing because it gives us all this amazing deep pressure. And what we know about our sensory systems is that the sensory information that goes along our dorsal column, medial lemniscal system, which is a track that takes deep pressure up from the muscles and the joints up to the brain -Very regulating.

So that means the deep pressure through massage, through vibration, through holding techniques, and of course, through swaddling [00:17:00] is all very calming for little ones. So that’s another lovely strategy to use with your sensory sensitive child. When it comes to auditory sensations and how do you deal with sounds and make the world less daunting in terms of sounds. One of the ways that you can do that is using white noise. So using white noise is a wonderful way to block out other extraneous sounds. And so I do recommend that you use that during the time when your little one is sleeping as an example.

So it’ll can mute out all the other sounds in the environment. So there, we’ve got it. You’re going to make lessons more in the environment. You are going to get your little one into a really good routine, and then you’re going to use some sensory calming techniques to assist them as well. Another sensory calming technique that I should probably mention is massage.

Some little ones are so sensitive, they can’t cope with massage in the evening. So then move it to the morning, but massage is also a lovely, super regulating strategy to use. So one of the questions that I’m often asked when it comes to talking [00:18:00] about sensory sensitivity is what happens later on, like, do these little ones become sensory sensitive for the rest of their life?

Does this end up always being autism or ADHD or ADD? And the answer to that question is that: just purely having sensory sensitivity doesn’t lead to any conclusive diagnosis later. So it doesn’t mean that your baby is going to be autistic or going to be ADHD or is going to be difficult. You know, however you want to phrase it or frame it.

It definitely doesn’t mean that automatically it does work the other way around though. Very often our little ones who have autism and ADHD, for instance, do have sensory sensitive systems. So or ADD, should I say very often have sensory sensitive systems. So it works the one way, but not necessarily the other way.

So the way that that happens is that there are strategies that we use as we go along to help our little ones and to help them to self regulate as they get older and as they go along. [00:19:00] And, and if we’ve got some really good co regulation strategies, and if we come alongside our little one and help them to soothe themselves and to, for the world to be more predictable, you’ll often find that they don’t end up necessarily going down the trajectory of having a diagnosis or maybe they never would have anyway but they just are going to live with being a slightly more sensitive person.

So if you have a little one who is more sensory sensitive, it’s kind of a little bit like having a little one who’s more sensitive to a type of food, for instance or having an allergy. You would simply try and avoid some of the more noxious situations. So if it was going to be a really overwhelming situation.

Avoid it. Like for instance, a very loud birthday party of a two year old with like 15 kids, or if it’s your child’s one year old birthday party, don’t have 15 children if they’re sensory sensitive. But having said that, just like with allergies, we do challenge some allergies as we go along in order to desensitize.

We do exactly the same with sensory information. And so we give little pieces of. The noxious [00:20:00] information and little, little increases in that kind of volume of sensory input and we challenge other ones a little bit, but within a very safe space, so there you have it. We’ve spoken a little bit about what these little ones look like how hard it can be for parents and then what we can do about it.

The other thing is that for many of you, you will be wondering whether or not it’s time for you to actually seek out professional help. So a lot of these, this conversation might’ve rung bells and you might be feeling like, Oh my goodness. I mean, my child didn’t feed easily. They don’t sleep easily. They really overreact to everything that’s going on in the world.

Maybe they are sensory sensitive. And your question is, do I need to go and get a diagnosis? Do I need to speak to somebody? So I think that they kind of. Two or three things that we need to factor in here. So the first one is that a diagnosis per se and a label is not always a very productive and you know, kind of, it’s not the best route to go.

In fact, I’m not always one for labels. Having said [00:21:00] that, it’s very helpful to be able to frame the way our children are and to be able to respond to them in their environment. And so it could be useful to go and chat to somebody about whether or not your little one is sensory sensitive. So, Who would you go and speak to?

Well, the right people to speak to usually are occupational therapists like myself, who specialized in sensory integration. And that would be quite specifically that you would ask them, you know, have you done your qualifications in sensory integration? Because they will be the best people to actually go and have a look at getting either a diagnosis or some sort of framing for the situation you’re in.

What most occupational therapists will do in the event that you do have a sensory sensitive baby is they will give you a home program that we call a sensory diet. So just like a diet, a nutritious diet, a sensory diet is made up of a whole lot of sensory events that happen through the course of the day that help your little one to be a little bit more settled and that help your little one to be able to actually do the activities of daily living that they’re required to do.

So for instance, If you’ve got a new baby, who’s really battling with their suck, [00:22:00] swallow, breathe, and to coordinate their feeding. You might be advised to feed them after a sleep and when they swaddled with some white noise in the background without touching their head and without speaking on your phone, now those five things together what we call a sensory diet. They kind of set your little one up for being able to feed and just focus on feeding. Cause we’ve taken out all of the other stuff that was going to scramble them and put them into the optimal state of arousal. We talk about a state of arousal being a state in which your little one is able to really focus on the task that at hand and to be able to perform at the task at hand.

So if the task at hand is feeding. What can we do around that feed time or within that feed time to be able to structure it optimally so that your little one would be able to do the activity as well as possible. So seeing an occupational therapist is useful, not just from the perspective of having a diagnosis necessarily, but also from the perspective of toolkit.

Some OTs might recommend that you [00:23:00] brush your little one and brushing is a great technique that I have used in my practice with a lot of success. It’s not always successful, but it certainly is one that can be super successful with these little ones. Then the other aspect of dealing with a sensory sensitive little one is to have a really good and supportive support system. And often as a parent with a sensory sensitive little one, you’re at the end of your tether. You are tired. You’re exhausted. You’re over the crying. Nothing works. Life just feels like it’s been so hard and you feel like you’re being a failure. And so it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and maybe even anxiety and postnatal depression, or it can just lead to feelings of.

Just despair. And in these situations, I think it’s important that first of all, you’re able to articulate with your partner. And second of all, that you seek out emotional support as well. Often just hearing a talk like we’ve done today and, and a little bit about sensory sensitive ones may be enough for you to actually feel like, Oh my goodness, this thing has a name.

It’s something that I can face. It’s something that I can [00:24:00] understand and that I can approach with empathy. So sometimes just framing it as useful. So whether it’s framing it, whether or not it’s getting a diagnosis and some help from an OT, or whether it is seeking out professional support in the form of emotional support, or just leaning on your partner it is really important that you do you, you, you do actually look for the strategies that will work well for you.

So there you have it today, and we have looked at the topic of sensory sensitivity through the eyes of your baby and through the eyes of moms and dads. And if this is something that you are facing, please do leave us some comments because it really helps me to, to know you know, what, what sort of topics to talk about, what sort of questions to answer.

And you can of course do that on my Instagram profile or on Facebook and we’ll get back to you. So thank you so much for joining me this week. A couple of things that I’m going to ask from you before I go, the first is go and download the parent sense app. It is really going to be super useful for you.

Second thing is please like, and subscribe to this podcast. It helps other [00:25:00] people to know about the podcast if you rate it. And so liking subscribing and rating the podcast is what I request for you. So with that, that’s me for this week. It has been wonderful connecting with you and we will see you again next week. 

Meg faure

Meg Faure

Hi, I’m Meg Faure. I am an Occupational Therapist and the founder of Parent Sense. My ‘why’ is to support parents like you and help you to make the most of your parenting journey. Over the last 25 years, I’ve worked with thousands of babies, and I’ve come to understand that what works for fussy babies works just as well for all babies, worldwide.