Sensory Processing Disorder in Babies and Toddlers

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sensory processing disorder in babies

Identifying sensory processing disorder in babies may help parents and caregivers to understand “difficult” infants.

When a baby has “colic”, it is worth considering whether a sensory processing disorder (SPD), also called sensory integration dysfunction, is the underlying cause.

Sensory processing disorder in babies often presents as a sensory modulation disorder, which is one aspect of SPD (read my article on sensory processing disorder to understand the different aspects of SPD).

Sensory Modulation Disorder can result in a child who is under-responsive to sensory stimulation (lethargic) or over-responsive (sensory defensive). Other aspects of sensory integration dysfunction that may occur to a lesser degree in babies and toddlers are motor planning (praxis) delays, bilateral coordination delays and sensory perceptual disorders.

Here are just a few of the common symptoms. Remember, all infants and toddlers may show one or two symptoms at various stages – but when symptoms are persistent and affect the child’s relationships, well-being and general functioning compared to other children the same age, then help should be sought.

Sensory Processing Disorder in babies and toddlers
can affect feeding

A baby who is sensory defensive may struggle to feed initially, because drawing the nipple into his mouth makes him gag. Although the baby eventually learns to tolerate the nipple or teat, he may become a fussy eater later, gagging on different textures of food, and refusing to touch or handle finger food.

The smell of food may also be off-putting, and the sensory defensive child tends to prefer bland food with a similar texture, and may avoid foods where the ingredients are mixed up, such as stews and soups.

An under-responsive baby may have a degree of low muscle tone that makes it harder to suck, resulting in the infant tiring easily and perhaps not feeding effectively. Later, the same child may be a messy eater, as placing the food in the mouth and chewing effectively is a challenge. Not being aware of the sensations in the mouth can also result in putting in too much food!

A toddler with low muscle tone may struggle to know how much force to use to lift a cup of juice, and spills may be frequent. Poor motor planning or poor bilateral coordination may also result in messy and uncoordinated eating.

Sensory Processing Disorder in babies and toddlers
can affect their response to touch

An oversensitive baby may become very distressed at diaper changes and clothing changes and need as little fuss as possible. Some babies will find warm bathwater soothing; others will fuss at all the added sensations. An infant with SPD may dislike being cuddled or moved through the air such as on a swing.

A toddler with sensory integration dysfunction may show his over-sensitivity to touch by being incredibly fussy about the texture and type of clothing such as long sleeves, polo necks etc. Some may prefer to wear as little as possible and be barefoot; others may prefer to be covered from head to toe to protect from unexpected stimulation. Such children may also dislike walking on rough surfaces such as grass or sand.

messy activities like playdough are hard for children with SPD

Toddlers with SPD may also avoid messy activities such as finger-painting, playdough and making mud pies.

An under-responsive infant or toddler, however, seems to not notice the various textures of clothing and surfaces and may not even notice feeling hot or cold in clothing, or if hands and face are dirty.

Sensory Processing Disorder in babies and toddlers
can affect their response to the environment

Although most babies get overwhelmed when in a noisy, busy environment for too long, infants with SPD may have a particularly low tolerance of noise, bright lights and busy places. They may also struggle to feed or sleep in an unfamiliar environment. SPD can prevent a baby from exploring toys

An infant with SPD may not play with toys in the same way as his peers. He may avoid exploring toys with his hands or mouth, or be limited in the movement he makes with the toy. Parents may notice that there are some toys (usually textured or noisy toys) that are always avoided.

These are only a few of the symptoms that may alert you to an infant or toddler with sensory processing disorder.

Please use this checklist from an SPD website to get a clearer idea of your concerns, and then contact your nearest health professional for treatment and advice.

With support, you will be able to help your child cope in a world that may seem overwhelming to him and to you!

Sensory Processing Disorder in Children explains some of the symptoms of SPD in slightly older children.

Read more about Sensory Integration Disorder to see how a child's functioning can be affected by SPD.

Return to the main Sensory Processing Disorder page

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Recommended Books:

These books have been written by Occupational Therapists who are experts in their fields.

If you click on the images or links to buy these books through Amazon, I will receive a small commission that will help support this site. Thank you!

1) Sensational Kids
This is my first choice of book for parents and teachers who need to know more about sensory processing and how to help their child at home and in the classroom. Well written, easy to understand and immensely practical.

2) Raising a Sensory Smart Child
I personally feel that this book is more suited to therapists, although many parents have certainly benefited from it. It is more indepth and therefore more "textbooky", but contains a wealth of valuable information.

3) From Rattles to Writing
Good for new parents, preschool teachers and therapists, this book details the activities, toys and exercises that are most beneficial at each stage of a child's development from birth to 5 years. Inexpensive and helpful activities to stimulate your child's normal development.

SPD Resources

PFOT Sensory Laplander

Weighted Blankets, Sensory Toys and lots more to help kids with SPD.

View the full range of sensory products at PFOT