What is a sensory lifestyle?
A sensory lifestyle is, as I said earlier- a list of activities and strategies that take into account the unique sensory needs of each individual, particularly neurodivergent children with sensory processing disorders or any nervous system challenges.
The one thing I say over and over it is easier to set your child up for regulation than it is to pull them out of dysregulation.
This means that being proactive and front-loading your child with activities and sensations that their body will naturally crave later will set them up for success. It’s kind of like when you prehydrate before spending all day in the sun. Rather than waiting until you’re so thirsty, you fill your body with hydration to help prepare you.
Or my favorite analogy- when I forget to feed myself on a regular schedule, sometimes I don’t eat until 3 or 4 and by then I make the worst choices for food- sometimes I even overeat. Whereas I would have made better food choices if I ate at regular times throughout the day.
When you front-load your child with the sensory input their body needs, the idea is you’ll see less of the signs of dysregulation later. I say “idea” is that because our kids aren’t robots, we can’t just magically program things and expect perfect regulation day in and day out… but big picture, zoomed out, a consistent set of regulation activities can help their nervous system and also create habits in their day to replace more of the unwanted behaviors that come out when they have a lack of the input they need.
Who needs a sensory lifestyle?
I want to start out by reminding you that we ALL (every person, regardless of neurotype) use sensory strategies all day to regulate. Some of them are proactive- e.g. those of us who have to get up and run or do yoga before the day starts. Some of them are more reactive/in the moment (like when you’re clicking your pen during a long meeting, or when you need to splash cold water on your face to wake up).
Kids naturally use more reactive/in-the-moment strategies as they just do things with their bodies that feel good to them in those moments. For example, the kids who constantly fidget, rock back and forth, chew on their sleeves or bite their nails, squeeze your arm, or hum- these are all in-the-moment sensory strategies.
The problem is, sometimes “at the moment” behaviors are not always appropriate or available and it gets in the way of the child participating in daily life tasks. Those are the kids we want to find ways to provide a sensory lifestyle for.
By the way, a sensory lifestyle is not just for kids who are sensory seekers- you can also front-load regulating activities and strategies for kids who are sensory sensitive/sensory avoiders. You could front load a sensory-sensitive child’s day by not only adding sensory input that’s regulating for them (maybe deep breathing, calming music) but also by LIMITING sensory input throughout parts of their day (like quiet playtime with the lights off)- all of it is a sensory lifestyle.
So knowing all that, what kinds of signs would your kids show that tell you a sensory lifestyle would be helpful for them? Here’s a quick rapid list- but it’s not exhaustive, and remember basically anyone could benefit 🙂
- Kids who are constantly moving and touching things throughout their day
- Kids who are aggressive or unintentionally hurting themselves or others throughout the day with rough and tumble, crashing play
- Kids who get overwhelmed easily by loud/ busy environments
- Kids who seem to be easily irritated, moody, or constantly dysregulated
- Kids who need help staying focused on a task
How to create a sensory lifestyle:
Ideally, you’d work with an OT who can help you identify your child’s sensory patterns. But let’s say you already have worked with one in the past, or you’re just very clear on your child’s sensory needs. Here’s how I like to go about creating and thinking about a sensory lifestyle. It can seem overwhelming at first, but it’s all about making small, manageable changes. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Identify your child’s sensory needs. This is an important first step in creating a sensory-friendly environment. Observe your child’s behavior and look for patterns. Do they seem to be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to certain stimuli? Do they seek out or avoid certain types of sensory input?
- More specifically- identify the patterns around those behaviors- is there a certain time of day they’re always wiggly/hyperactive? Is there a time of week or month when you notice it’s harder for them? You want to note that because that’s how you can plan to be proactive- to increase
- Create a sensory-friendly environment. Again, the term sensory-friendly is pretty subjective to the person- It can definitely be tricky when you have multiple sensory profiles to support, but some quick thoughts include anything from rearranging furniture, using sound-dampening curtains, and removing distractions, putting little baskets of fidgets in areas they would need them most, etc.
- Be a sensory detective! Come up with some (or work with an OT to help) activities that provide regulating input to your child and try them out but when you’re doing it, tell your child you’re going to be detectives. I usually go into it with a list of 5-10 things to try, written on a piece of paper and then columns to take notes. I’d tell my client “Today we’re going to try some activities and actions that are supposed to help our brain and body connect better so we can be in control of our body- think about a time when you feel out of control and can’t help what your body does- like when you’re so mad, or when you’re so wiggly- we’re going to try some things and I want you to give me a thumbs up or thumbs down if you think it would help.” Now some kids aren’t able to actively tell you how it makes them feel- and this is when YOU need to observe over time how these activities help regulate them, or maybe dysregulate them.
- So maybe you’ve identified you have a child who tends towards aggression when they’re dysregulated and has a high need for heavy work. You come up with a list of things like wall pushes, pillow fighting, bubble wrap popping, and one day at a neutral time you practice them all with your child and either ask them how they feel or try to judge for yourself based on observations. You’ll cross some off your list based on the data you collect and then hopefully leave with a couple of strategies that worked. Then you go on to the next step which is:
- Work it into your routine. Remember, children with sensory processing disorder benefit from having a predictable routine. Establishing a routine can help your child feel secure and know what to expect. So you identify that blowing bubbles, the wall pushes, frog hops, and hand squeezes are regulating your child. So you look at your morning routine first and think- hmmm how can I add this into my child’s day- oh while they’re waiting for their food to cool down they can blow bubbles, or they can do hand squeezes while you brush their hair. It really can be as simple as that. There may be parts of your day where you need to spend more time providing longer, more intense input depending on your child- but for morning and evening routines you can add it easily.
- Keep taking data and notice over time how it’s working- you may need to make adjustments and change things up here and there.
Looking for more guidance on how you can support your child’s sensory needs? Let’s work together. I specialize in helping parents understand how sensory impacts behavior and how you can still use gentle parenting techniques for neurodivergent children.
If you want help understanding more of your child’s sensory needs and how you can be more proactive in supporting their nervous system regulation, I can help you! Book a 3-package session with me at www.theotbutterfly.com/parentconsult
Speaker 1 (00:00): Being proactive and front loading your child with activities and the sensations that their body will naturally crave later will actually set them up for success. Welcome to the Sensory Wise Solutions podcast for parents where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura, OT and mom To Liliana, a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new OT mom, bestie. I know my stuff, but I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder. Speaker 2 (00:43): Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s start the podcast. Speaker 1 (00:49): Well, hello there. Welcome back to the podcast. Welcome. If this is your first podcast you’re listening to today, we are going to talk about a sensory lifestyle and what exactly that is, what that looks like, who it can benefit. You might have heard of this as being referred to as a sensory diet. Some people call it a sensory support plan, a sensory lifestyle. It’s basically a list, a curated list of sensory and calming strategies that you can offer to your child throughout their days in a way that is consistent and proactive so you can help them be more regulated. That is my definition. I’m going to repeat that in a second as they break it down. So this is going to be kind of one of those short and sweet episodes. I’m going to explain what a sensory lifestyle is and really how you can start to create one for yourself. (01:51)Ideally though, you would be working with the help of an OT or at least have a very good understanding of your child’s particular sensory needs and their regulation patterns. So let’s start right off. What is a sensory lifestyle? When I say that to you, what do you think of? What do you know about it? What do you have in your mind of what that consists? Some of you might hear that and think obstacle courses and sensory bins and sensory corners and all of these maybe Pinterest worthy or Instagram or TikTok. Great, great, great ideas that you’ve seen and chances are you might be over complicating it. But again, a sensory lifestyle is, as I said earlier, a list of activities and strategies that take into account the unique sensory needs of your child, of each individual, particularly in this context of neurodivergent children with sensory processing disorder or maybe any nervous system challenges. (02:59)But the importance of a sensory lifestyle and why we create one is goes back to the fact of something that I share time and time again. It is easier to set someone up to set your child up to be regulated than it is to pull them out of disregulation. Whenever I say that, I repeat it again. It is easier to set your child up for regulation than it is to pull them out of dysregulation. What does this mean? This means that being proactive and front loading your child with activities and the sensations that their body will naturally crave later will actually set them up for success. Think of it as like when you hydrate before spending all day in the sun or if you have a you’re, you’re a runner and tomorrow you’re running 20 miles to prep for a marathon. You might carload the night before. (03:53)You might drink a lot of water the night before rather than waiting until you’re so thirsty, dehydrated, you fill your body with hydration to better prepare you. Or my favorite analogy, when I forget to feed myself or I get too busy to feed myself on a regular schedule throughout the day, sometimes I then don’t eat until three or four and then I make not the best choices around food and sometimes I even overeat. Sometimes they undereat because my hunger cues are all messed up cause I didn’t listen to them all day. Whereas I would’ve probably made better food choices if I ate at regular times throughout the day when I wasn’t hangry. So when you front load your child’s nervous system with the sensory input that they crave, the idea is that you’ll see less of the signs of dysregulation later. So I say the idea is in quotes because our kids are not robots. (04:53)This is not a magic pill or magic code to program them with, and it’s going to have them pop out this most perfect regulation behavior like day in and day out. That’s not how it works unfortunately. But if we’re looking big picture zoom out. When your child has a consistent day-to-day set of regulation strategies that they can do that can help their nervous system it can also help them create healthier habits in their day to replace more of those unwanted behaviors that come out when they have a lack of the input that they need. So again, some of those unwanted behaviors I put in quotes because that phrase might trigger some of you, but if you have a child who’s a sensory seeker and they’re not getting front loaded with the input that they’re craving and you wait all day, they go to school and they’re told to sit down hands in their lap, stop chewing this, stop spinning, stop flapping your hands, and then they get home from school and they have all of these unmet needs from the school day and what happens, they are running wild in the house, hitting their siblings, grabbing this, grabbing that, chewing on their siblings levy that they’re not supposed to chew on all of the things and it’s like they are just hangry. (06:14)Their nervous system is hangry at this point, and if we can front load with them that front, load them with it throughout the day before they have a chance to crave it, then the idea is that hopefully their needs will have been met in a more efficient and a more effective way. Okay, so now let’s talk about who really needs a specific sensory lifestyle. But I want to start out by reminding all of you that we, every single person who’s listening to this, including myself, regardless of neurotype, we all use sensory strategies at some point throughout our days to regulate. Some of them are proactive, like those of us who have to get up and exercise or lift weights or do yoga before the day starts because that’s regulating to your nervous system and it helps you, you feel energized. Some strategies we use are more in the moment or reactive strategies like when you’re listening to a long meeting and you’re clicking your pen or you’re twirling your hair or you’re fidgeting in your chair or you go to the bathroom to splash cold water on your face because you were starting to hit that afternoon slump. (07:22)Those are all reactive sensory strategies that you are using to respond to your body’s cues that are telling you you need help to focus, to wake up, to stay alert, to get calm, whatever that is. Kids tend to be more in that reactive in the moment strategies that they just do things that feel good to their body in those moments and there’s rarely a filter or thinking if it’s good or bad. If it feels good to their body, they’re going to do it right. So for example, I just shared earlier, the kids who constantly fidget or rock back and forth or chew on their sleeves or bite on the back of their pencils or bite their nails or are always squeezing things like squeezing your arm or they’re humming. These are all in the moment sensory strategies that their nervous system is saying, Hey, do this. It feels good. It can be kind of automatic and intrinsically rewarding and fulfilling to them and their nervous system as it starts to tell them, this feels good. I like this. (08:26)Most of these strategies can be okay, right? Like pencil tapping twirling your hair, rocking back and forth, fidgeting with certain things. That’s okay, but sometimes there are some in the moment strategies and behaviors that are not always appropriate or maybe available for that child and it gets in the way of them participating in their daily life tasks. Those are the kids. We want to find ways to provide a sensory lifestyle. For example, if any of the child’s sensory behaviors are interrupting their ability to stay focused on a task, how can we proactively provide them with that input so they can sit down and focus on a task for an appropriate amount of time? That’s the key there. I’m not saying let’s find sensory strategies to front load them so that they can focus for as long as their neurotypical peer for 30 minutes. If your child currently is starting at a three minute attention rate, we can’t expect to provide them some heavy work and then get them to sit down as long as their neighbor who has no executive functioning challenges, for example. (09:36)That’s just one example. We do still want to work with the skills your child has and kind of enhance it by creating patterns of regulation around those skills. And by the way, I’m going to put this here. A sensory lifestyle is not just for kids who are sensory seekers, though we talk about them a lot as our biggest example because some of their behaviors tend to be the more disruptive and sometimes destructive and sometimes inappropriate ways to get the input. But you can also front load regulating activities and strategies for kids who are sensory sensitive or sensory avoiders like my own daughter. So for my own daughter, front loading, her nervous system is focusing on front, loading it with calming strategies like deep breathing and drawing awareness to her breath and sensations in the body, helping her remember to actively check in with the way that her body sensations are that interoception piece and proactively providing her with some unwind time after school. (10:38)Because I know that later in the day around the four o’clock time, she starts to get a little dysregulated sometimes. So after school, it’s easy for her to have all this energy and want to do all of these things, but I know the way that her nervous system works. She needs to have some downtime after school. So I offer her quiet time, set up the environment in a way that is inviting for inviting her to get in a regulated state, and that is part of her sensory lifestyle. Yours, if you have a sensory seeker might look completely different to me, but my point is, a sensory lifestyle is not just for kids who seek out particular input. You can also limit sensory input throughout their day for it to be considered part of a sensory lifestyle. So again, if you like turn the lights off for my daughter when she has quiet time, lights are off. (11:25)It’s just natural lighting from the window and that’s it. I don’t add music for her all the time. Sometimes I do, sometimes I add a projection light, but removing sensory input in certain parts of their day intentionally is also part of a sensory lifestyle. So maybe that includes headphones, noise canceling headphones, when you guys go on a walk. All of those are great examples. So knowing all of that that I just said, what kinds of signs would your kids show that give us the clues that a sensory lifestyle would be helpful for them? Here’s a quick rapid fire list, but it’s not exhaustive. And remember, basically anyone could benefit. I’m not going to tell you say that person does not benefit from a sensory lifestyle. Just some kids would probably need it more than others. So here’s a quick example of kids who might benefit from a sensory lifestyle. (12:19)Kids who are constantly moving and touching things throughout their day. Kids who are aggressive or unintentionally hurting themselves or others throughout the day with rough and tumble or crashing kinds of play. Kids who get overwhelmed easily by loud or busy environments. Kids who seem to be easily irritated, moody or constantly dysregulated and kids who need help staying focused or on task. Those are just quick rapid fire common profiles that I would say let’s try a sensory lifestyle for them. All right, so onto the last of it, how exactly do you go about creating a sensory lifestyle? Ideally, you would work with an OT because they can help you make sure that you’re seeing the right things that they can help you specifically identify your child’s sensory patterns. But for the sake of this, let’s just say you’ve either already worked with an OT in the past or you’re just really clear on your child’s sensory needs. (13:21)Here’s kind of the step by step progression that I would use in order to create a sensory lifestyle. And by the way, if you’re not working with an ot, never have, and you want help with this, I offer this through my one-on-one consult. I would suggest getting a three package consultation so that I can help you from start to finish in helping you understand your child’s sensory needs and creating a sensory lifestyle around that. You can go to the ot butterfly.com/parent or just scroll down under this episode and there will be a link there. Okay, so step one would obviously be identifying your child’s needs. So this is a really important step because not all sensory profiles are the same. Not every sensory activity is regulating for every person. So you’re going to want to observe your child’s behavior and look for patterns, and you might have to ask your child’s teacher to help you with this part as well. (14:16)Do they seem to be oversensitive or unders sensitive to certain things? Do they seek out or avoid certain types of environments or people or any kind of sensory input? But also a part of this step, which is really important, is identifying the patterns around those behaviors. Is there a certain time of day when they’re more prone to being wiggly or hyperactive? Is there a time of the week, like a certain day of the week or a day of the month where you’ll notice it’s harder for them? Maybe you live in a divorced household and you have to rotate whose house your is at every weekend and maybe you notice every time they come back from the other parent’s house, they’re more dysregulated on that day or in anticipation of that, or maybe on Fridays they have music class. And so you notice Friday afternoons are hard for them. (15:04)Any kinds of patterns you can build around that you can try to identify is very helpful because that’s how you can plan to be proactive to increase regulation. Chances is when they’re most likely to be dysregulated. Obviously, you can’t predict every moment of dysregulation, but if you can be intentional about noticing their behaviors and the patterns that is going to really help you be successful with this, the next tip is to think of ways that you can just already create a more sensory friendly environment. Now again, the term sensory friendly is pretty subjective to each person. What is regulating to one child or person might be dysregulating for another, and it can definitely be tricky when you have multiple sensory profiles to support. Again, highly recommend working with an OT to help see how you can create an environment that’s most conducive to everybody’s regulation. (16:01)But just some quick ideas on how you can create a sensory friendly environment can be anything from rearranging furniture so that there’s a part of the room that makes sense where they can run and crash or that there’s more space for them to just jump while watching TV or using changing your curtains. So it like dampens some of the sound. Maybe you have a house that’s very echoy and that’s really hard for your sound sensitive child. Maybe you can add some little soft pieces of furniture, change the curtains for it to absorb some of the sounds. Maybe you add little baskets of fidgets in areas that they would need them most or have a pillow with tassels that your child can fidget on when they need to sit on the ground for circle time or a book if you homeschool them. All of these little ways are things to just have things in the environment that invite regulation or promote regulation for your child. (16:59)And then the next step is really, really stepping up to become what I call a sensory detective. So you’re going to come up with some or work with an OT to help come up with some activities that would provide regulating input to your child and then try them out. But before you do it, tell your child what you’re doing. Tell them that you’re going to be detectives. Usually if I like when I’m in the clinic and working with a kid on this, I usually go into it with a list of five or 10 things to try written on a piece of paper and then column ’em to take notes. And I would tell my client, okay, today we’re going to try some activities and actions that are supposed to help our brain and body connect better so we can be in control of our body. (17:43)Think about a time when you feel out of control and can’t help with what can’t help what your body does, like when you’re mad or when you’re wiggly. And we are going to try some things and I want you to give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down if you think it would help. So obviously I’m going to state this. Some kids are not able to actively tell you how a certain activity makes ’em feel, and they’re not really in a place cognitively for you to have that set up for them. But that would just require you to kind of observe over time to see how those activities help regulate them or dysregulate them, because some things you might notice, oh, that was just not helpful for them and it totally dysregulated them. So maybe let’s say you have a child that you’ve identified who trends towards aggression when they’re dysregulated and has a high need for propreceptive input or heavy work. (18:42)So you come up with a list of things like wall pushes, pillow fighting, bubble wrap, popping, and one day at a neutral time, you list all of these down. You practice them all with your child, and you either just ask them how it makes them feel. If they feel like they could, it’ll help them be in control. Or you try to judge for yourself based on observations on how it helped or how their body is responding. After some times of this, you might have a few sessions of practicing. Then you’re going to cross off your list based on the data you collect, and then hopefully you leave with a couple strategies that worked and then you go on to the next step, which is work it into your routine, work it into your routine, not create a whole brand new one where you have to add like 30 minutes to your morning routine. (19:34)No children with sensory processing disorder or any sensory needs. Really any neurodivergent child need to have a predictable routine. And chances are you probably already have one set in place, and we just want to see how we can infuse little bits of sensory strategies throughout it so that it can help their nervous system feel a little bit more regulated. So let’s say you identify that things like breathing and blowing bubbles and wall pushes and frog hops and hand squeezes are all regulating things for your child. So you think about your morning routine and you’re like, Hmm, how can I add this into my child’s day? Oh, I know while they’re waiting for their oatmeal to cool down, they can blow bubbles or they could blow the oatmeal themselves or they can do hand squeezes while you’re brushing their hair. It can be as simple as that, and it feels like it’s not making a big effect at once. (20:24)But the more often you do it, the more consistent and more proactive it should be helpful. But I do want to say there are some kids who have very high needs for heavy work and intense input. So you might need to be a little bit more creative with the ways that you infuse it throughout your day. And there might be days when you need to spend longer chunks of time, maybe more intense input for your child depending on them and depending on your schedule and what their needs are. Then the last step is to just keep taking data or at least observing what’s going on and notice over time how it’s working. You might need to make adjustments and change things up because our kids are always changing and growing, and regulation is not a permanent fixture. It’s not like, okay, I’ve gotten my child regulated. (21:11)This is what we’re going to do every day. Kids don’t live in a vacuum. There are things in their daily life that make them more regulated or dysregulated day to day, depending on their sleep, depending on what’s coming up for school, depending on growth spurts, all of those things, illness, sickness, all of those things can make it. So you might need to adjust your sensory lifestyle day to day or week by week. But it’s really important for you to just understand those cues in your child and know how to identify when they’re regulated and dysregulated. So again, if you want help understanding more of your child sensory needs and how you can be more proactive in supporting their nervous system regulation, I would love to help you. You can book a three package session with me at the ot butterfly.com/parent consult or scroll down below for a direct link. All right, I will be back next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review, which helps other parents find me as well, want to learn more from me. I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT butterfly. See you next time.