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Sensory processing refers to how children take in and respond to different sensations such sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, as well as movement and body position. Children use information from these different senses to learn about and respond to their environment - how a child processes and interprets sensory information affects their movement and behavioural development.
How do sensory issues relate to premature babies?
Babies born preterm have different sensory experiences than babies born at full term. For preterm babies, early sensory development occurs in the NICU environment and they are exposes to extra sounds, light, touch and gravity while their brain is developing. This may affect how children born preterm experience and respond to different sensations later in life including their motor skills, behaviour and social development.
NICU’s are aware of the sensory needs of premature babies and the additional support they need while their sensory systems are developing. Some of the ways that NICU’s assist is by monitoring sound volume within the NICU, creating darker environments for babies by covering the humidicribs and assisting with kangaroo cuddle time by parents for positive touch experiences.
What are sensory processing issues?
Sensory processing issues occur when children have difficulty taking in and using sensory information for their behaviour and activities. Along with touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight, this also includes internal senses of body awareness (proprioception) and movement (vestibular system). Proprioceptive receptors are inside the joints and ligaments and help with motor control and posture. The proprioceptive system sends information to the brain about where the body is in relation to other objects and how to move.
The vestibular receptors are inside the inner ear, they can tell the brain where the body is in space and it assists with balance.
Children with sensory processing difficulties can show different behaviours. Some children might be over (hyper) sensitive, while others may be under (hypo) sensitive to sensory information. Children might avoid particular activities or they may seek out extra sensory experiences, or respond to sensory information in ways that are different from other children.
Some over responsive behaviours include sensitivity to:
Some under responsive behaviours or seeking out extra sensory experience include:
While sensory processing difficulties are more common in children born preterm, it varies how much they affect individual children. Some children might have a combination of over and under sensitivity depending on the activity and environment. Although sensory processing difficulties are seen in children with autism, many children with sensory issues are not on the autism spectrum.
As a parent of a school age child with sensory processing issues you may see strong reactions to things you may not expect. For some children this is like a 'fight or flight response'. They may cry or run away from a sensory experience (such as noise) without noticing safety issues or hit out when touched or held.
“My son was born at 30 weeks and I didn’t understand why he was having a lot of behavioural issues. My family was convinced I was being too soft on him and maybe I was because I sensed something was not right. A child psychologist said that he is trying to get my attention and this was a result of inconsistent parenting when in fact they were wrong. It was a very preceptive Kindy School Director that said he needed a Sensory Assessment and OT could help us. He was 4 at this stage and I was just then finally finding out what the problem was.” - Andrea, Miracle Mum to Aiden
What is helpful?
Working with an Occupational Therapist (OT) can help provide a sensory diet and recommendations for ways to help your child with their responses to sensory information. Your child can use the OT’s suggestions throughout the day to help self-regulate. Also, getting to know your child’s school teachers and educating them on this issue if they are unaware of sensory processing problems.
What does a sensory diet look like?
This diet has nothing to do with food but it can be a group of activities that help the child come down to a calmer state, a weighted blanket could be used, headphones to block noise or certain soft textured clothes that are not overstimulating. These are just some examples and your OT will customise the diet for your child’s specific needs.
Key take away:
Questions you can ask your Health Care Provider and OT:
Parent Mental Health
When we see that our child is having trouble, it can be very difficult for us because we love the so much and we have seen them go through a difficult start to their lives. It can be an adjustment over time to understand what these problems are and how to help our child. Sometimes we can change our point of view of difficult circumstances to help ourselves during stressful times of seeking answers to problems or diagnosis. Being knowledgeable about sensory issues creates a giant opportunity to educate people on this issue. This is a fairly new disorder and education will help other family’s like yourself get the early intervention that makes a huge difference in the world of families challenged by prematurity.
As their parent or carer, take care of yourself. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, eating right and talking to the right supportive people. How you are feeling matters and makes a big difference in how you get through difficult times.
Meditation can be helpful and exercise too.