We’ve all heard the word ‘diet’ before, which is often associated with food intake, but have you ever heard of a ‘sensory diet’? A sensory diet is a personalized plan of physical activities and accommodations designed to meet a child’s sensory needs. The goal is to help kids achieve and maintain a regulated state enable learning. A sensory diet can be beneficial for children who get overstimulated or have sensory differences, but is also a good resource for everyone, as we all need a mixture of sensory input.
Having a sensory schedule and routine can help kids build self-awareness to when they feel overloaded or overstimulated and gives them the strategies and skills to return to the “just right” state. Having the right sensory input helps kids pay attention in school, learn new skills, and socialize with other kids. According to a study done on sensory diets for classroom-aged children sensory diets can be effective in improving children’s sensory processing, psychosocial, and classroom engagement behaviors (Vidya et al., 2021).
Each sensory diet should be individually tailored to each child because what works for one child might not work for another one. It is also important to remember that children are learning, growing, and changing rapidly, so this diet should be re-revaluated when it is no longer helping the child. You can create your own sensory diet for your child, or an occupational therapist can assist with this.
To make your own sensory diet, you should start by observing and identifying any sensory challenges your child is having at the moment and make a note of it. This note should include when specific behaviors occur, the setting where meltdowns occur, and what was happening prior to the behavior. Ask yourself questions to strategize on the “why?” behind sensory-related behaviors.
- Is it an unmet sensory need that causes a child to bolt in the hallway?
- Did the child not get enough sleep?
- Is the routine off?
- Was a transition done without warning or preparation?
- Was the individual at a level of stress?
Once you have established a pattern for your child, you can now trial different sensory activities and make note of what helps and what doesn’t. Below there are some examples of sensory activities to trial. When you have the preferred sensory stimulations for your child, it can be helpful to build those activities into their daily routine at regular intervals (e.g., performing heavy work activities before meals, naps and bedtime).
Sensory Activity Ideas:
- Tactile (Touch)
- Use silly putty
- Draw with shaving cream
- Squish sensory sand, foam, play dough or slime
- Massage lotion on hands or arms
- Movement (Vestibular)
- Run, jump, march, dance, or walk
- Climb stairs
- Use a spinning toy
- Swing on a swing
- Hop up and down like a frog or on one foot
- Somersault or roll
- Bounce on a therapy ball with feet on the ground
- Oral motor
- Eat crunchy food, like carrot sticks, apples, or pretzels
- Blow bubbles
- Blow bubbles in water with a straw
- Eat sour or spicy snacks like hard candy or lemonade
- Chew on gummy snacks or gum
- Heavy work (proprioceptive)
- Carry a full laundry basket
- Push the shopping cart in a store
- Push a vacuum cleaner, mop, sweep
- Work with a therapy ball
- Carry groceries
- Move furniture or rearrange books and toys on shelves
- Shovel snow or rake leaves
- Knead or roll bread or stir cookie dough
- Visual, auditory, and olfactory
- Play a musical instrument
- Wear noise-canceling headphones
- Listen to favorite music
- Look at picture books
- Move away from visual clutter
- Use calming sensory bottles
- Turn on white noise
- Sniff scented candles or lip balm
- Lower or brighten lights
Sensory diets can be a powerful tool to help your child recieve the sensory input they are seeking in appropriate ways to set them up for success! Reach out to your OT team if you need support establishing, modifying or creating visuals to go along with your new sensory routine!
Vidya Pingale, Tina Fletcher, Catherine Candler; Effect of Sensory Diets on Children’s Classroom Behaviors. Am J Occup Ther August 2021, Vol. 75(Supplement_2), 7512520398p1. doi: https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2021.75S2-RP398
The OT Tool Box. 28 Apr. 2022, www.theottoolbox.com/how-to-create-sensory-diet/
To learn more about occupational therapy at CI visit: https://www.citherapies.com/our-services/occupational-therapy/