sensory issues or temperament

Child Behaviors: Are They Due to Sensory Issues or Temperament?

CME WebsitesBehavior, Child Development, Expected Behavior by Age

As a mother, therapist, friend, and neighbor, I hear people say all the time, “Oh he/she is the best baby…he/she never cries, fusses, puts anything in his/her mouth, and can sleep through a train driving through our house.” Or I may hear the opposite, “He/she will only sleep if it is totally silent, cries all the time, and never seems happy.” So are these behaviors indications of sensory issues or just the child’s temperament?

Never puts anything in their mouth vs. Puts everything in their mouth

Children learn to explore their environment in many different ways, including using their mouth.  More often than not, when a child does not mouth toys or objects, it can develop into a feeding aversion later.  When a child mouths toys or objects, they are experiencing different textures on their tongue, cheeks, and lips.  This type of exploration helps to desensitize their mouth for the transition to table foods.  Table foods have many different textures and can be a difficult adjustment from the nice, smooth baby food their mouths are accustomed to.  If a child is not mouthing objects or toys then it may be an indication that their mouth is overly sensitive to textures.  On the other hand, children who mouth everything may be seeking this sensory input and are not getting enough input through their daily activities.  Children should be mouthing toys frequently until between the ages of one and two years old, when teething begins to slow down.

Sleeps through noise vs. Sleeps in silence

I remember when I brought my second daughter home I was so worried that every time she woke up in the middle of the night to eat that she was going to wake up my older daughter.  Thankfully this never happened.  Children should be able to sleep through some sound in their environment.  There are two stages of sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement).  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, during NREM is when it becomes more difficult to wake a child because they are in such a deep sleep.  During this stage of sleep is when it should be safe to run the vacuum, dry your hair, or have your other children make all the noise they want.  If a child is waking from the slightest sound then this may be an indication that the child is never getting into that deep non-REM sleep.  If a child is sleeping through all these sounds, even when they just fall asleep and should not be in the non-REM stage yet, I would become concerned why his/her sensory system is not acknowledging the sound input.

Never cries vs. Cries all the time

Of course babies are supposed to cry.  But when should they be crying?  The most common times babies cry are when they are hungry, tired, need changed, or are experiencing some kind of discomfort (teething, sick, etc.)  Babies that are crying all the time are not happy about something in their environment.  Is something too loud, lights too bright, are they uncomfortable in the position they are in?  Every parent wishes they could read their child’s mind to know what is bothering them.  As a therapist, I often recommend a book titled “The Happiest Baby on the Block” by Harvey Karp, M.D.  Harvey talks about different techniques to use to calm your baby, even if he/she is just being called a “colicky baby”.  If a child never cries then his/her body may not be recognizing simple sensory cues, such as hunger, wetness, exhaustion, etc.  Babies should be using their voices to get their needs met, such as getting fed, changed, or put to sleep.

My advice to any parent is that if you are concerned for your child’s development, contact your local early intervention agency and have them evaluated.  The professionals will be able to offer you some direction and could possibly complete a sensory evaluation to determine if your child’s behaviors are sensory related or just due their temperament.

By: Nicole Sciulli, MOT, OTR/L