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Sensory Activities for Babies

As children grow, it’s our job as parents to expose them to different types of sensory stimulation so that they develop skills and are able to cope when confronting strange new stimuli. How we do this is by making sure there are plenty of sensory-stimulating activities planned throughout the day.

Jayna Niblock, PhD, OTD, OTR/L, BCP is an Occupational Therapist at STAR Institute. As a mother of twins, she knows all of the benefits of sensory activities. “We are all sensory beings and have various things we do that support our ability to complete daily life activities and find enjoyment in life. Helping anyone of any age to learn about their own likes and dislikes supports their overall development and well-being, as we use sensory information to plan our movements and learn more about our world,” Niblock explains. 

If you’re looking to help engage your child’s senses, here are activities Niblock recommends to do with your baby–by sensory system.

Touch: People are familiar with sensory bins with various textures in the bin that an infant or child can play with. For small children, I like to make sure it is something that is age-appropriately edible because we don’t want to have to take something away from them if they are going to put it in their mouth. One thing I like to start with is crushed graham crackers or another cracker substance. It falls off their hands mostly, which is important for a child who may be sensitive, and if they decide to eat it, you are okay. You can have the bin be something they can explore with utensils or toys, and allow them to explore the touch of the graham cracker as they desire.

Taste: It is very age-appropriate to have huge variations in what kids do and do not like from day to day (trust me, I’m living this now). When you start purees, you can add different spices to increase the variations in flavors a young child is experiencing. Making sure to present things many, many times before it is eliminated as a food is important.

Smell: Getting a variety of food items or spices together and smelling them, then looking at pictures or whole items of the spice (garlic, cloves, etc.), or grabbing flowers of differing smells and removing the stem, can be a big smell for infants to engage in. Having a child in the kitchen while parents are cooking can be a great way to expose them to a variety of smells.

Sight: Slow rolling activities (ball, toy car, other toys with wheels, and bonus points if it lights up) will allow an infant to learn to coordinate their eyes together as they progress to a toddler. Make sure the object is only slowly rolled, without bouncing. You can take the feedback from the child (trapping or stopping the ball) as a cue that you found the speed they are able to be successful at. Depending on how tired they are, this speed can change, as they are working the muscles that coordinate their eyes and they get tired and strained just like our other muscles.

Auditory: We’re taught to ask kids, “What sound does the cow make?” or to make a sound and ask the child what animal makes that sound. Flipping this to a supportive strategy allows for them to make the connection between the animal and sound more readily. Saying, “The cow says ‘Moo,’” while looking at a picture or an actual animal, allows the child to make the connection between the animal and the sound. We don’t need to “test” kids about what the different animals say by asking them the questions. By changing the question to a statement, it allows them to not be in a situation where there is a demand to respond. This is really important as we get into the toddler phase, as you only get to place so many demands throughout the day on kids that age, so you want to save them for the important things.

Vestibular (Movement): My favorite vestibular activity is an adapted tummy time activity and can be used with any infant that fits onto their parents’ forearms. You place the child on their parent’s forearm with their bottom close to the elbow and their head towards their parent’s hand. Depending on the size of the child and parent, two hands may be needed to keep them safe. Moving them through space can be as small as a back-and-forth movement, or as big as traveling through space with the parents moving fast and spinning. These variations allow for the development of different vestibular processing abilities, and any big, fast, or spinning movement should be done in short bursts. Then, read your child’s cues. Have they started giggling in a way that says that was a lot? Or are they giggling for a little while and then they stop giggling to let you know that you can go again? If the child is too big to fit on a parent’s forearm, you can do something similar by having them lay on a blanket or towel and pull them around.

Proprioception (Body Awareness): Crawling or tummy time activities are the best way to build this system and are really important for kids who have progressed beyond crawling (especially if they never crawled) to get down and continue building this system. Crawling and tummy time also builds core strength in both the stomach, and more importantly, back muscles needed for sitting still and doing activities with their hands.

I like to create tunnels because this provides the child with the cue that crawling is needed, and this can be done with an actual tunnel or simply throwing a blanket over the edge of a couch or another surface to have them crawl under. Placing items in the tunnel for them to crawl over and navigate increases the challenge for them, as well as the body awareness they are getting from the activity.

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