You may have heard your occupational therapist (OT) recommend a sensory diet. If you’re anything like me, you hear the word “diet” and run the opposite direction. We associate diets with life altering patterns, commonly associated with restrictions. A sensory diet, quite oppositely, is often an addition to your child’s life. We hope you don’t run in the opposite direction at the thought of adding sensory diet activities to your ‘to-do lists’ in your already busy lives. We’re here to help! Let’s start with a definition.
A sensory diet includes the use of individualized activities or tools at specified frequencies throughout the day to support your child’s regulation, and thereby participation in daily tasks. Think of your child’s sensory system like a tank of gas and an individualized sensory program like the best fuel grade for the car. The same way that we never want to drive on an empty tank, we never want our children to function on an empty tank.
When our sensory seekers tank is empty, we might see an increase in disorganized or unsafe behaviors (e.g. jumping, crashing, spinning) as our children try to fill their own tanks.
When sensory avoiders have an empty tank, we might see a decrease in level of arousal with slouched posture and heads resting on desks as our children settle into their engine stalling.
The goal of a sensory diet is to appropriately fill your child’s tank with gas so that they can efficiently use their fuel throughout the day without having to negotiate with an empty tank. If you’re living in Los Angeles like me, you may be thinking “but gas is expensive” or “there’s always an inconvenient line at the gas station.” Before you let that discourage you, here are some basic guidelines to help you feel more confident as you and your occupational therapist collaborate to initiate a sensory diet.
Your occupational therapist will help you to identify your child’s sensory needs and offer recommendations for sensory strategies and dosages to trial.
For instance, your child’s OT may recommend jumping on the trampoline for 5 minutes followed by pushing the laundry basket from the bedroom to the laundry room before coming to sit at the table for mealtime. Another sensory diet example could look like one minute wrapped tightly in a towel followed by two minutes of massage after bath time, prior to putting on pajamas.
When working with your occupational therapist to create an effective sensory diet, keep the following in mind.
This can be both in regards to time and equipment. For example, if you spend a lot of time in the car between school and activities, work with your therapist to identify appropriate activities that can be done (safely) during the drive (for example, adding a resistance band to the headrest of the passenger seat for heavy work pulling). Incorporate sensory diet activities at home. If space in your home is limited and therapeutic equipment is minimal, work with your therapist to get creative. Don’t have a trampoline? Jump on the bed for one minute before making it every morning.
When first establishing your children’s sensory diet, there may be some trial and error. Track your child’s regulation throughout the day. Does your child lose steam by lunchtime, nearly falling asleep in his plate? Does your child start doing parkour on the couch immediately after your sensory diet activities because he’s over-aroused? This is valuable information to use when problem solving with your therapist.
Don’t be discouraged if what worked last week doesn’t work this week. Our children’s sensory systems can be affected by sleep, environment, time of day, you name it. Is your child going through a growth spurt? Are molars erupting? Was his bedroom warm last night and he was a restless sleeper? Any number of factors may impact your child’s sensory system and subsequently his response to what may have seemed to be a successful sensory diet. A sensory diet will need frequent fine-tuning to be effective.
You may just be surprised to find that daily participation in your child’s sensory activities helps your own body and mind feel more organized throughout the day. If nothing else, it’s a good chance for bonding and engagement.
Samantha Cooper is a pediatric occupational therapist at NAPA Center Los Angeles. When not engaging her clients through play, Samantha can be found balancing her love for ice-cream with spin or barre classes or trying to cuddle her dog, Cassidy, who would much rather have her personal space.
At NAPA Center, we take an individualized approach to pediatric therapy because we understand that each child is unique with very specific needs. We embrace differences with an understanding that individualized programs work better. For this reason, no two therapeutic programs are alike. If your child needs our services, we will work closely with you to select the best therapies for them, creating a customized program specific to your child’s needs and your family’s goals. Let your child’s journey begin today by contacting us to learn more.