By Ms Yong Siew Ping, Paediatric occupational therapist,
Teo Therapeutic Centre, Petaling Jaya
What is the recommended age for a child to begin to receive sensory stimulation?
A child begins to receive sensory stimulation even in the mother’s womb! Every movement and sound made by the mother will assist in stimulating the baby’s position in the womb and the outer world. Sensory stimulation continues after a child is born. The sound, movements, smell, food and people that the baby interacts with helps him relate to his surroundings and develop necessary gross motor, fine motor, visual-spatial, social, play and emotion regulation skills to perform in life. There is no specific age to start sensory stimulation. It is an ongoing process that continues as we keep interacting with our environment and people. Thus, it is important for parents to provide a safe, nurturing and minimally structured play environment for the child according to his developmental stages.
What stimulation does a child need?
When we talk about the sensory stimulations for a child, we are always referring to the sensory inputs for our five well-known sensory systems, which are the touch, smell, taste, hearing and visual. There are another two sensory systems which play a very important role yet not so familiar to most of us: the vestibular and proprioception sense.
What is vestibular system?
The vestibular system, located in the inner ears plays an important role in the balance system and body movements.
What is proprioception sensation?
Proprioception sense is located in our joints, muscles and ligaments. It tells us where our body parts are in a certain space and how we move them.
Which sensory system contributes most to a child’s development?
Among the seven senses, vestibular, proprioception and touch are the three most essential sensory systems that account for typical development. Both vestibular and proprioception sense contribute to our muscle tone, posture, coordination of both sides of the body, head and neck organisation and occulomotor skills.
What activities are rich in sensory stimulation?
Some of the major sensory inputs that children need include vestibular, proprioception and touch sensation, which are helpful in development. Hence, children are encouraged to explore and move around their environment, create and plan during physical play, socialise with peers and not just sit in front of electronic devices or engage with electronic games only. Provide ample opportunity for your child to explore. The child must feel physically and emotionally safe and secure in their learning environment.
What are the activities that will stimulate the vestibular system?
All activities related with a change in head movement will contribute to the vestibular system. This includes swinging, jumping, spinning, running, rolling, crashing and ball activities. Often, spending time in the playground will provide great vestibular input for a child.
How to incorporate more tactile sensation on a daily basis?
For touch sensation, what a child needs is exploration with different textures, objects or surfaces, such as playing with shaving cream, sand, water, finger painting and play doh. In fact, the kitchen is the best place for the child to experience different touch sensations at home!
How can parents provide substantial proprioception input for a child?
Proprioception comes hand in hand with either vestibular or tactile input. Strenuous activities such as carrying heavy objects, pushing or pulling, crawling, climbing and lifting will provide sufficient joint sense to the body.
How much sensory input does a child need?
Some parents may think that the more sensory input a child receives, the better the child will be. This is not true. Children will perform best at an optimal arousal level. Optimal sensory input provides just the right challenge for children to learn and practise higher skills each time. Too much sensory input may cause sensory overload. This is not measureable, so we must observe our children closely. Stop any activity when you notice signs and symptoms of sensory overload such as crying, giggling and non-stop laughing; nausea, vomiting, or any changes in skin colour, heart rate or respiration.
Some children seem to crave certain sensory input while others avoid it. Why?
Everyone has different degrees of sensory needs; children are the same. Children who are hyper responsive to sensory input will feel uncomfortable when exposed to it driving some to actively avoid the input. For example, children who are hyper responsive to vestibular sensation will prefer sedentary play and try to avoid most physical activities which require body movements that they perceive as ‘dangerous’. This may be due an underdeveloped vestibular system in the child.
On the other hand, children who are hypo responsive to a specific sensory input will crave for the sensation. This is why we some children enjoy a lot of twirling, spinning, and fast movements and yet do not experience fatigue or dizziness. These children are most probably hypo responsive to vestibular sensations.
What happens if a child does not get enough sensory input?
Usually, when a child does not get enough sensory input, he or she can be deregulated and resort to being ‘difficult’ such as crying, avoidance, or being hyposensitive or hypersensitive to a stimulus. A child who is deprived of sensory inputs can experience limitation in his ability to attend to tasks, perform coordinated motor actions, develop social relationships, perform self care tasks and participate in family activities. He or she might face challenges performing or participating in daily age-appropriate activities. For example, a child who is hypersensitive to tactile stimuli may have difficulties in sine activities such as dressing, bathing and grooming. Academic learning (e.g., writing and cutting) and social interaction with peers may be affected at an older age.
What can parents do if they suspect their child has sensory processing issues?
Firstly, educate yourself as much as possible about sensory processing. There is abundant information in books, articles, and the Internet (be mindful of the source). Next, you can go through a checklist to help identify potential sensory processing issues. Most importantly, seek help from experienced professionals such as developmental specialists, pediatricians and occupational therapists.