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What is a Sensory Diet and Why Does My Child Need One?

Occupational Therapy Staff
October 3, 2018

Every person explores, feels, and senses her environment differently.  For some people, playing soothing background music helps increase focus, while for others, all background noise is distracting.  A sensory diet is a personalized set of activities and environmental modifications embedded in daily routines which supports individuals to be successful in tasks and transitions. 

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What is a sensory diet?

A sensory diet is a personalized set of activities and environmental modifications embedded in daily routines which supports individuals to be successful in tasks and transitions.  Depending on the needs of the person, a sensory diet can be a series of calming activities, a series of alerting activities, a series of organizing activities, or a combination of these three types of activities.  To help figure out what is calming/alerting for you or your child, an occupational therapist can establish a sensory diet.

Why does my child need a sensory diet?

A sensory diet can help your child navigate the most challenging parts of his day.  For example; if your child has difficulty getting dressed in the morning and complains about the feeling of the material or doesn’t like certain textures on his skin, the therapist might suggest an activity that would help your child transition into the non-preferred activity (i.e. getting dressed). Example activities may include wrapping your child up in a blanket and giving deep pressure input to help desensitize the skin before putting clothes on.  This type of activity could also help decrease your child’s anxiety about getting dressed because being wrapped up tightly can give a calm and safe feeling (again, every individual is different). Occupational therapists work with the family to help establish a diet that works for the child and family.

Examples of sensory diet activities

Below is a list of tools, divided into calming, alerting or organizing activities. Please take note that these are suggested activities and may not be calming/alerting for your child.  We again emphasis that every person processes information differently and that a licensed occupational therapist is able to help determine which combination of activities can help support your child’s sensory needs.

Alerting Activities

Alerting activities help the undersensitive child to increase hypo-responsiveness to sensory stimulation. Stimulation activities may include:

  • Applying lotion with stimulating scents (peppermint, citrus scent).
  • Jumping activities (jumping jacks, jumping on trampoline, hop scotch, jumping on bed/furniture).
  • Bouncing activities (therapy ball, beach ball, peanut ball).
  • Eating crunchy food (raw vegetables and fruits, nuts, crunchy cereal, toast). 

Calming Activities

Calming activities can be used to help the oversensitive child decrease hyper-responsiveness to sensory stimulation. These activities are characterized by slow, linear movement or comfort. They may include:

  • Deep pressure activities (being sandwiched in between two pillows; being rolled in a blanket like a “burrito;” pushing against the wall with hands, back, and head; clamping hands in each other and squeeze; pushing down on a hard surface with extended arms and flat hands).
  • Slow rocking (in the arms of an adult, in rocking chair, placed in a blanket held by two adults, in a hammock).
  • Taking a warm bath/shower.
  • Applying lotion with calming scent (lavender, chamomile, vanilla).
  • Sucking on hard candy, lollipops, or pacifier.
  • Holding a cuddle toy (stuffed animal, favorite blanket).
  • Manipulating a fidget toy.

Organizing Activities

These activities help regulate the child’s responses. Organizing activities use resistance and/or rotational, upside down movement. They may include:

  • Eating chewy foods (chewing gum, eating peanut butter, chewy fruit bars, dried fruits, fresh bagels).
  • Hanging activities (hanging on a monkey bar or pull-up bar, hanging off adult’s elevated arms).
  • Pushing activities (pushing furniture, heavy grocery and/or laundry bags).
  • Climbing (on play structures, furniture, trees).
  • Bouncing activities.
  • Digging in resistive mass (theraputty, sand, mud, rice).
  • Sitting on an air cushion, peanut ball.
  • Participating in rough play (tug of war, roughhousing).
  • Upside down movement (somersault, cartwheel, hanging off trapeze).

If you think your child could benefit from a sensory diet, and want to work with a clinician to design sensory diet activities, contact us for an appointment with one of our occupational therapists.

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