Do you ever chew gum or fidget with a pen during a meeting at work? Do you take a walk to stay alert during the afternoon lull?

When you do these things, you’re providing the sensory input your body needs to remain focused and attentive throughout the day.

For kids with sensory processing issues, these needs are even more intense. Without exposure to the input they need, they can struggle with demonstrating appropriate behavior, remaining alert, and keeping themselves organized and in control.

A sensory diet is a program of sensory activities kids perform during the day to ensure they’re getting the input their bodies need. An occupational therapist usually designs it.

Whether the concept of sensory diets is new to you or you’re looking for more specific information for your child, the following guide can help.

What’s the medical community’s stance on sensory diets?

Studies show that kids with sensory processing issues respond to sensory input differently than other children. Their sensory responses affect their behavior.

Research on treatments for sensory processing issues has been inconsistent for a number of reasons, including:

  • Homogenized study groups. It’s difficult for researchers to find study groups of children who all have the same sensory needs. Children with sensory processing issues all have very unique presentations.
  • Intervention techniques. There’s not one single set of sensory interventions followed by all occupational therapy practitioners. This lack of consistency makes it difficult to study the effectiveness of these interventions. That said, while experts are calling for more rigorous and reliable research in this area, most therapists use at least some sensory interventions. Anecdotally, many therapists and families describe positive results from using sensory strategies.

Sensory input and techniques

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The term “sensory input” refers to experiences that stimulate the various sensory systems of our bodies. Some people with sensory processing issues demonstrate behaviors indicating they need more input to their sensory systems.

Sensory systems include the following:

Proprioceptive system

Kids who seek out rough play and jumping or crashing may need more input to this particular system. Proprioception is one of our movement senses. It contributes to coordination and body awareness.

Input to the proprioceptive system may include:

  • stomping
  • jumping
  • deep pressure
  • working against resistance

Vestibular system

This is our other movement sense. It’s related to balance and how we perceive our body’s orientation in space.

Some kids need constant movement and can’t sit still. Others appear sluggish or lethargic. In these cases, the following vestibular input can help meet the child’s needs:

  • swinging
  • rocking
  • swaying
  • bouncing

Tactile input

Tactile input involves the sense of touch. Kids who constantly touch and fidget with objects or who are always touching others may need more tactile input. These children may benefit from the following:

  • fidget tools
  • tactile sensory bins
  • deep pressure

Auditory input

Sensory experiences that involve sound refer to auditory input. When kids are constantly humming, yelling, and making other noises, they may need more auditory input than other children.

Good auditory experiences for kids who seek out this kind of input include:

  • listening to music with headphones
  • playing with toys that make noise
  • playing instruments

Visual input

Kids who require more visual input may look closely at objects. They may seek out moving or spinning objects. They may have difficulty focusing on information presented visually.

Activities that provide visual stimulation may incorporate light or moving objects, such as:

  • flashlight play
  • toys that light up
  • toys with moving parts

Olfactory and oral sensory systems

These two systems are how we process smell and taste. When kids seek out input to these systems, they may lick or smell objects like crayons or toys. Chewing also provides proprioceptive input, so kids may bite or chew on objects (think pencils or shirt collars).

These kids may benefit from exploring smells through play with the following:

  • chewy toys
  • chewing gum
  • chewy or crunchy snacks
  • scented markers
  • essential oils

Keep in mind that while some kids with sensory processing issues need more sensory input in one or more of these areas, other kids may be hypersensitive to certain types of sensory experiences. These children may require less input. They may also require strategies to prevent negative reactions to these experiences.

Sensory diet examples

Effective sensory diets are tailored to the child’s needs and have elements that can be easily incorporated into a child’s routine.

Below are two examples of sensory diets:

For a child who seeks out rough play, has trouble calming themselves, and chews on objects

  • 8 a.m.: Have a chewy breakfast or snack, like a bagel or granola bar.
  • 9 a.m.: Carry a crate of books to the school library.
  • 10 a.m.: Hold the heavy library door open for the class.
  • 11 a.m: Squish with a beanbag chair.
  • 12 p.m.: Lunchtime with chewy options and water bottle with bite valve.
  • 1 p.m.: Do wall pushes.
  • 2 p.m.: Play with crash pad.
  • 3 p.m.: Walk with weighted backpack.

For a child who can’t sit still and constantly touches and fidgets with objects

  • 8 a.m.: Use fidget toy on the bus.
  • 9 a.m.: Jump on trampoline.
  • 10 a.m.: Play with tactile sensory bin.
  • 11 a.m.: Sit in rocking chair for reading time.
  • 12 p.m.: Bounce on a yoga ball.
  • 1 p.m.: Swing at recess.
  • 2 p.m.: Play-Doh time.
  • 3 p.m.: Sit on a yoga ball while doing homework.

Products

There are a number of sensory products an occupational therapist may recommend to help kids meet their sensory needs. Some of these items include:

Sensory sock

A sensory sock is a stretchy sack that a child can fit inside. It provides calming deep pressure and movement against resistance. You can find one here.

Abilitations StayN’Place Ball

A weighted yoga ball can be a good tool for kids who seek out movement. They can sit on it or use it to bounce or roll on during sensory breaks. You can find one here.

SmartKnit seamless socks

These socks have no bumps or seams inside. They can be a nice option for kids who are sensitive to the feeling of their clothes. You can find them here.

Waldorf rocker board

For kids who seek out movement input, a balance board is a tool that can be used to rock from side to side and play with balance. You can find it here.

Weighted vest

Subtle deep pressure and resistive input to a child’s torso can be calming for them. A weighted vest can accomplish this. You can find them here.

Weighted blanket

Weighted blankets can provide deep pressure to the entire body. Like weighted vests, they can be used as a calming sensory strategy. You can find one here.

Crash pad

Jumping, rolling, or crawling on a crash pad can provide tactile and proprioceptive input for kids who seek out rough play. You can find one here.

Sample sensory diets

These sample sensory diets can help explore different types of sensory input with kids while noting their responses.

Resource guide

The following resources can be useful supplemental tools if you’re looking to incorporate a sensory diet into your child’s life.

Therapy Shoppe

For a range of sensory toys and tools, the Therapy Shoppe offers everything from oral sensory chewing products to weighted and tactile products.

Social Thinking

If you’re looking for various products that support appropriate social skill development in kids, you’ll want to head over to Social Thinking.

Fun and Function

Fun and Function is a popular retailer that offers a variety of sensory and other therapeutic products.

‘Sensory Processing 101’

Sensory Processing 101” is a book designed to promote a deeper understanding of the sensory systems and sensory processing.

Takeaway

Children with sensory processing issues may need strategies throughout the day to help them stay on track with appropriate behaviors and interactions. A sensory diet may be an effective way to structure a child’s routine while providing the sensory input they need.

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Claire Heffron, MS, OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist with 12 years of experience in school-based settings. She’s one of the founders of The Inspired Treehouse, a blog and online business that provides child development information and products for parents, teachers, and therapists. Claire and her partner, Lauren Drobnjak, are also the executive directors of The Treehouse Ohio, a nonprofit organization that provides free and low-cost developmental playgroups for kids and continuing education for child development professionals.