March 07, 2013

Our Sensory Journey and 10 Fun Sensory Activities for Kids

My son, Noah, was almost two years old before I could hold him regularly without him crying.  He started crying when he was two weeks old and didn't stop for almost two years.  He was our second child (the first one had been an angel baby) so I knew that all babies didn't just cry all the time for no reason.  My "mommy gut" told me something was wrong. 

I have thought many times about how I would talk about our journey with Noah on this blog.  It was the most trying 2 years of my life (yes, even more challenging than adoption and attachment disorders).  For a long time, I wasn't ready to talk about it.  I heard Brene Brown at a conference say one time, that when you don't know how to write about something, that it's sometimes best to sit on it and wait until you figure out what you've learned from it, then you can write from a perspective of going through it and coming out the other side.  I took that advice to heart and it's taken me YEARS to decide that I'm on the other side completely. 

In 2006, I gave birth to a gorgeous baby boy, my Noah.  We loved that baby.  We brought him home to his adoring, big sister and counted our blessings. However, that baby never slept or stopped crying.  Occasionally, he would doze off for 30 minutes or so at a time then start screaming again.  I think that I almost wore a hole in the floor walking the loop around our kitchen and living room from 1 am to 4 am every night holding that screaming child.  I was a sleep deprived, defeated mother and I couldn't figure out what in the world was wrong with my baby.  This went beyond colic, beyond teething, beyond reflux. 

My son gagged when he had his milk.  He cried when his clothes were put on.  He cried when the lights were too bright or too dim.  Every action and reaction were a trigger for him.  He cried when you tickled him. He cried when we sat him down and when we picked him up.  Since he had no way to communicate besides crying, he just did that... all the time. 

We started talking to the doctor about it when he was three months old.  We switched formulas.  We switched bottles.  We started giving him medication for reflux.  Nothing helped.  At 6 months of age, we did all the scans of his stomach and esophagus to see if there was a problem.  We figured that if there was something in there causing him pain and we could fix it- he would stop crying and be a happier baby.  The scans didn't show a thing.  All the doctors were dumbfounded.

At 6 months, my baby started to do this:

See all those scratches on his sweet, little head?  He started clawing himself all over.  For a solid month, he scratched constantly.  On the rare occasion that he would sleep, we'd go get him out of the crib only to find the sheets covered in blood from where he'd scratched in his sleep. We tried everything.  We put mittens on him (which only fueled the crying), switched lotions, changed detergent and whatever else we could think of.  For weeks, we even made him wear this super nerdy bandage on his head just to try to get him to stop.

We went back to the doctor.  We discussed that, perhaps, Noah had allergies and that was the reason for all of his discomfort, scratching and crying.  So at 12 months, we had him allergy tested.  Most doctors don't allergy test that young because children's bodies change so rapidly that allergens often change as well.  But as a team (our pediatrician, the allergist and myself) we decided that something had to be done to help my child.  He was so unhappy and we just wanted some answers.

Lo and behold, he had a whole host of environmental allergies.  He started on medications and allergy shots to try alleviate his symptoms.  It didn't help. 

At 18 months, our child still wasn't sleeping and was still crying the majority of the day.  He made no attempt to talk or babble.  He was very delayed across the board for developmental milestones.  We became prisoners in our home because car rides with him were horrific, and the lights at Target were too bright and the highchairs at restaurants would infuriate him.  He acted uncomfortable in his bed, but was equally as uncomfortable in our arms.  It was almost like his sheets were torturing him and our touch was burning him.    When he started to walk, the floor bothered his feet, and walking on different surfaces, like concrete or hardwood would just send him into a tailspin.  He would slam himself into the walls over and over again or beat his head on the floor for what seemed like no reason.  He would go for a few weeks where putting his coat on made him act like a wild animal and then the very next week he would have to wear his coat to sleep because the thought of taking his coat off was too much for him.  If the neighbor down the street would start up his motorcycle, Noah would act like he'd been shot.  Foods made him gag.  Bathing was painful. His "quirks" went way beyond being picky and crossed right over into debilitating. We were completely baffled.

I blamed myself.  (I think us moms tend to do that!)  I felt like I was not a good enough mom to take care of my son.  I felt isolated and angry and depressed. In retrospect, I realize that he did have some great moments when he was happy but as we were living through it, those felt so overshadowed by the trying times that I couldn't even recognize the good when it came. Finally, at 18 months, we started to get some answers.  At his 18 months well checkup, our doctor suggested taking out Noah's tonsils and adenoids.  We though that they might be causing him to not get good rest and that the lack of good sleep was a catalyst for all the other issues we were having.  Taking his tonsils out did help him sleep but he was still miserable.   At our followup appointment, we decided that the next course of action would be to have a developmental evaluation.  The developmental therapist suggested that he start speech therapy because she felt that the remaining crying Noah was doing stemmed from his inability to communicate. 

We started speech therapy right away.  Almost miraculously, our child who had not even tried to talk, started talking in whole sentences.  It was like he'd been storing up.  But he was still so uncomfortable and unhappy.  At one of our speech therapy sessions, the therapist said, "Megan, your son doesn't need speech.  He needs OT (occupational therapy).  This child has sensory processing disorder."

We had never heard of sensory processing disorder.  I couldn't believe that after all the specialists we'd seen and doctor's visits we'd had, that someone finally gave us a diagnosis. I went to Dr. google and started researching.  Web MD said:

Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Sensory processing disorder may affect one sense, like hearing, touch, or taste. Or it may affect multiple senses. And people can be over- or under-responsive to the things they have difficulties with.
Like many illnesses, the symptoms of sensory processing disorder exist on a spectrum.
In some children, for example, the sound of a leaf blower outside the window may cause them to vomit or dive under the table. They may scream when touched. They may recoil from the textures of certain foods.
But others seem unresponsive to anything around them. They may fail to respond to extreme heat or cold or even pain. Many children with sensory processing disorder start out as fussy babies who become anxious as they grow older. These kids often don't handle change well. They may frequently throw tantrums or have meltdowns.
Many children have symptoms like these from time to time. But therapists consider a diagnosis of sensory processing disorder when the symptoms become severe enough to affect normal functioning and disrupt everyday life.

It was like I was reading the history of my child. Things finally made sense.    (For more technical info about Sensory Processing Disorder click HERE) He would slam into the wall because he needed sensory input.  He'd scream when we picked him up because it was too much sensory input, and on and on. We made the decision to see an occupational therapist and it was the best decision that we ever made for our son.  From the outside, occupational therapy seemed a little strange to me.  We were paying for someone to come and roll around on the floor with our child.  But as we began to learn about the nervous system and what types of activities would help calm our child's nervous system and brain responses, we saw him THRIVE. 

Our OT introduced us to things like weighted blankets (which help but pressure on nerve centers and calm the body down)  She taught us exercises that we could do to help desensitize him.  We figured out safe ways to give him sensory input (instead of slamming into the walls) and safe ways to get rid of input when we needed (like wearing sunglasses in brightly lit stores instead of scratching himself until he bled out of frustration.) We learned ways to help him make sense of his environment and he blossomed when he had the tools to help him manage his body.

We did occupational therapy for a little over a year, and in that time, our rockstar therapist taught us everything we needed to know to help Noah manage his sensory processing disorder.  At 6 years old, he still does things that we know are sensory driven, but not are no longer debilitating, like stuffing his mouth super full so that his mouth actually registers that he's eating.  We had to learn how to let go and pick our battles.  I realized last night as Noah put an entire peanut butter sandwich in his mouth at one time and we just dismissed it that we were on the other side. And this morning when his normal shoes were wet and his other shoes "felt funny" he only melted down for a few minutes and then rolled with it instead of that snowballing into a terrible day for him.  Now, Noah is one of the most easy going, JOYFUL children I know- but it was a LONG process.

He's now so in tune with his body that when he feels out of control he will say, "I feel like I need to get in my heavy blanket" or "I'm going to crawl in the cabinet (we have an empty kitchen cabinet in our house just for this!) because I can't handle anyone else touching me."  He can go sit in there with the iPad for a little bit until his body feels less sensitive (but at the same time, the confinement of the cabinet causes him to scrunch up and stimulate his nervous system).  He knows what he needs.  He has no idea why he needs it but he knows that it works for him.  As he grows and changes, his needs grow and change.  Over the years, we've tried lots and lots of different sensory activities.  The goal has always been to make them fun- after all, kids NEED to play!  For very young kids- therapy should NOT feel like therapy, it should feel like a game.  Here are a few of our favorite, tried and true activities:

10 FUN Sensory Activities For Kids

Polluted Playdough- Dump a cup full of rice into a container of playdough.  Or non-perils, or small rocks, or oatmeal or dried beans any other number of small objects.  It's great sensory play just to squish the play-dough with different textures.  Another game is to pick out the grains of rice (or other objects) from the playdough.  This helps with fine motor skills as well.
The 5 minute recipe I use for no-cook playdough is:
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 1 cup salt
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • Tempera paint or food coloring (keep adding a  drop at a time until it is the color you want)
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • Mix together in a large bowl until it is the consistency of bread dough.  Store in an airtight container. 
    Kid Taco- this is the same "science" that's behind a weighted blanket. Being tightly wrapped stimulates nerve receptors and calms them down (much like how a tight hug is relaxing). Remember those days of swaddling an infant? This is very similar. Lay out a blanket and wrap the child up tightly like a burrito. Then roll them around on the floor. Or start pulling the blanket at one end and let it "unroll" the child. This is one of our kids' (both the sensory seeking and the sensory typical ones) favorite things to do. Sometimes we will put a safety pin on the blanket so that it stays put and have timed "races" where the kids roll inside their blanket from one wall to another. We've found that this is one of the best ways to get major sensory input quickly.
    "Grocery Shopping"  (Heavy Work)  Those empty cartons that come with the play grocery carts are no match for our sensory seeking children.  When our son needed sensory input to the point that he was slamming into walls to get it, we found that giving him "heavy work" to do accomplished that.  He would ride his tricycle with a brick in the back.  Or put all of our canned goods in the toy grocery cart and push the cart around.  Or attempt to pull one of the other in the wagon! He thought it was so fun!  Just adding weight to the activities your child is already doing is a great way to stimulate the senses through exertion. The motion of pushing and pulling a heavy object stimulates the body from the core all the way out.  (And kids think it's a blast!  Just don't get too heavy- a little weight goes a long way!)

    Marching/Jumping Simon Says:  Getting kids with sensory issues to put on socks and shoes is one of the biggest complaints most of my OT friends say they get from parents.  This was one of our major issues as well.  Take some time BEFORE it's time to put socks and shoes on to "wake up" the feet.  Play a game of Simon Says that involves lots of jumping and marching- anything to get some pressure and stimulation going to the feet.   Play spa and rub lotion on the feet and give a gentle foot massage before putting on the shoes.  The idea is to desensitize the feet BEFORE squeezing them into socks and shoes. 

    Sensory Bin- get a shoebox or plastic container with a lid and fill the box with rice.  Bury small toys of different textures (a smooth ball, a hard block, a soft piece of fabric, or any small toys you want to put in.  Kids will have a blast just using their hands (or feet!) to find the objects buried in the rice.  Instead of rice, you could also use sand or dried beans or uncooked pasta.  To keep it fresh, swap out your buried objects as needed.
    Slurping and Crunching-  Food is a common sensory trigger for many kids.  Our son is super sensitive to food textures/sauces/noodles/hot liquids/etc.  Basically, if it's not crunchy or doesn't have to be chewed to death, he's not happy about it.  We started slowly with this one.  The idea is to "wake up" the mouth through stimulation before eating.  Like having a chewy tube to chew on and suck before meals.  Or giving treats eaten in nontraditional ways- like sucking pudding through a straw.  Using a straw when you typically "aren't supposed to" is really fun for kids and the extra exertion that is needed to get the food to the mouth helps to desensitize the mouth to adverse textures.  We also had a therapist that had our son blow bubbles in water with a straw before eating or put a couple of Poprocks in his mouth or brush his tongue with a toothbrush (no toothpaste) before eating. All of those served as extra sensory input for the mouth and tongue.

    Mummy- I gave birth to my son in the pre-Spanx days.  The first time I wanted to go out in real clothes and couldn't button my pants, I bought a giant, wide ACE style bandage to wrap up in to hold in my belly.  One day, my son was particularly tired of doing the "kid taco" but needed a little stimulation.  I used that big bandage to wrap him up snugly. (Scarves work great here, too!) I told him that he was a mummy and he stomped around the house moaning with his arms stuck out like a mummy.  It gave him just the input that he needed and was a "cool" way to do it.  We have to be creative with our kids- they burn out of therapy techniques and sometimes being a little unconventional is just the answer!
    Shaving Cream Painting-  Just like the polluted playdough, this one is really good for hand sensitivity.  Kids that have an aversion to feeling textures will hate this at first, but usually the thrill of making a mess is just the catalyst they need to dive right in.  Simply squirt some cheap shaving cream on the table (or a cookie sheet if you want to contain the mess) and let them have at it.  You can even drop in a few drops of food coloring to make colored foam as well. 

    Building hideouts- One of our kids' favorite things to do is to build "caves" out of pillows.  Building small closed in caves can really help our kids.  Being scrunched gives them core sensory input as well and brushing up against blankets and pillows gets them used to changes in soft and hard pressure.  For extra input, build a hideout in a corner where you can use the wall as hard input and a blanket or pillow for soft input so that you can maximize the sensory stimulation.
    Swinging- Swinging is hands down one of the best sensory activities there is.  The motion of swinging challenges kids vestibular awareness and makes them more conscious of where they are in space. Swinging on your stomach or bottom?  They are both great!  Do them both!  And if you get in a bind and can't go out and play, lay the child in a blanket and have two grown ups each pick up an end and gently rock (like a hammock). 
    All kids are different- what works for some doesn't work with others.  So much of therapy for Sensory Processing Disorder is trial and error. As a mom who walked through it with her child, there were times when we were rocking and rolling through it and times when we couldn't manange the disorder at all.  It was very cyclical.  Don't get discouraged if what you try one day that works, doesn't work the next day!  That's the nature of this disorder- it is always changing!  Be patient with yourself and your child and don't be afraid to think outside the box! 

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