Everything You Need to Know About Sensory Diets

What You'll Learn:

  • What a sensory diet is
  • How implementing one can benefit your child
  • How exactly to go about "making" one

Sensory diets are a hot topic on the internet. Just do a google search and you'll see!

If you've gone down the "sensory diet" google rabbit hole, only to feel more confused, I'm here to help.

First a sensory recap!

Sensory processing (also called sensory integration) is our ability to organize and make sense of the information we receive through our eight senses. Efficient sensory processing is the foundation for skill development, higher-level learning and our sense of self.

Sensory Processing Disorder happens when a child receives information from any of his eight senses but his brain doesn't quite know what to do with it. He becomes disorganized and confused, sometimes overreacting or underreacting to the sensory input.

Depending on which senses are involved, the child may have difficulty with things that come naturally to other kids — dressing, eating, falling and staying asleep, transitioning from one activity to another, making friends, motor skill development and many other daily activities.

Sensory Integration Therapy (OT-SI), a form of occupational therapy that uses fun, play-based sensory activities to help a child’s brain respond to sensations and movement in a more “organized” way, is the most helpful intervention for kids with sensory processing challenges.

Sensory diets are often used in conjunction with Sensory Integration Therapy. So...

What exactly is a sensory diet?

It's a carefully designed, personalized schedule of specific physical activities that give your child the sensory input he needs to be in a "just right" state. If he's feeling sluggish and inattentive, certain activities help him become alert. If he's overstimulated, other activities help him calm down.

The activities use different types of sensory input - proprioceptive, tactile, vestibular, visual, auditory, gustatory and oral motor - to regulate attention and arousal.

Its purpose is to regulate the flow of neuro-chemicals in your child's body so he can be in an optimal state for learning and functioning. In other words, to keep your kid cool, calm and collected!

Who is a sensory diet for?

According to pediatric occupational therapist, Alisha Grogan, kids who could benefit from a sensory diet fall into three groups:

1. Children with sensory issues but no formal diagnosis. This is a child who functions relatively well, but "has a few tendencies that set him apart from other kids." Maybe he's a little sensitive to noise or to crowds or maybe he's got tons of energy, is always moving and seems to have "ants in his pants" (this is my younger son!). He's got some "quirks," but they're not pronounced enough to necessitate a formal diagnosis (click here for a list of sensory red flags).

2. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder. These are the kiddos whose sensory needs interfere with daily functioning and cause learning, behavioral and social challenges.

3. Children with Autism or ADHD. All children with an Autism diagnosis have sensory processing issues and many children with ADHD do as well.

If your child fits into any of these categories, a sensory diet will be right up his alley.

What are the benefits of a sensory diet?

When customized to fit your child's specific sensory needs and used properly and consistently, a sensory diet will help keep your child's nervous system regulated. The effects are both immediate AND cumulative. Think fewer meltdowns, better mood, increased cooperation, less aggression, more energy, more focus...an overall happier child.

How do I "make" a sensory diet?

If your child is already receiving occupational therapy, the first thing you'll want to do is consult with his OT. Based on the OT's clinical observations, she will be able to customize a routine of activities to meet your child's exact sensory needs. The OT will then help you monitor the efficacy of the sensory diet and will make adjustments as needed.

If your child doesn't have a diagnosis and is not receiving occupational therapy, you can take a stab at creating one on your own. You just want to be intentional and thoughtful about the types of activities you choose. Printing out a "sensory diet" sample from the internet and randomly trying some of the suggested activities won't get you very far and will probably leave both you and your child feeling frustrated.

Here are a few guidelines to get you started:

1.Identify and make a list of which types of sensory input cause your child to overreact and which cause him to underreact.
2.Keep a log of his mood and behavior throughout the day. Look for triggers and patterns.
3.Based on what's triggering him, when he's being triggered and how it's impacting his behavior, choose one to three activities from this list and implement them before the typical trigger.
4.For each activity you choose, answer the following questions: Does he seem more regulated after doing the activity? Calmer? More focused? Did his mood improve? Is he more cooperative?

For example, if your child tends to be tired and sluggish in the morning (common in kids who are over-responsive to vestibular input), his morning "sensory diet" might include jumping on a trampoline, bed or couch or riding his bike around the block.

If he tends to be overstimulated after school, as soon as he gets home, you'll want to plan on doing a few calming activities - kneeding playdoh, slow, rhythmic swinging or squeezing a stress ball.

Now, here's the tricky part: What's alerting or calming for one kid may not be for another.

Kneeding playdoh is soothing for some kids, but for kids who are tactile defensive, it may be overwhelming. Swinging also tends to be soothing for most kids, but for kids who are over-responsive to vestibular input, it might put them over the edge.

This is why it's imperative to tune in to your child's specific sensory profile before implementing a sensory diet. CLICK HERE to download a free Sensory Profile pdf.

When do I use the sensory diet?

A sensory diet is something you both build in to your child's daily schedule and use on the fly when your child becomes dysregulated. Once you identify your child's behavioral patterns, you can decide on specific times of the day to implement his sensory diet.

Common "trigger" times include: before and after school, transitions, social gatherings and bedtime. Again, you want to use the sensory diet activities before the behavioral trigger.

For example, if you know for a fact that your kiddo falls apart before bedtime, then 15-30 minutes before heading up for his bedtime routine is the perfect time to put the sensory diet into action.

Since we can't always predict when our kids are going to become dysregulated, knowing which activities calm your child and which help him focus will make it easy for you to act quickly when he begins to unravel and use his sensory diet on the fly.

Kid starts whining and seems overly tired? Time for some jumping jacks! Kid just threw a LEGO at you because he got frustrated? Cue the calming music and weighted blanket. Kid running around like his pants are on fire? Time for some "heavy work!" You get the picture.

Important note- a child should never be forced to do sensory diet activities. If he is resistant to doing an activity or isn't responding positively, don't push it.

What's an example of a sensory diet?

My older son is over-responsive to vestibular, tactile, visual and auditory input. He has Dyspraxia, low tone, poor vestibular and proprioceptive functioning, tends to be sluggish and gets easily over-stimulated.

Here's what his senosry diet looks like:

Morning- The last one to wake up, he comes slumping down the stairs in a grumpy mood and plops down on the couch while muttering some kind of complaint. Our first line of defense is to make breakfast because he usually perks up after he eats. Right after breakfast, we head to the playroom, where he hops on the swing for 5-10 minutes. Usually that's enough to get his nervous system more organized. If he's still sluggish and grumpy, we'll play a game of hide-n-seek (his favorite) or he'll jump on the mini trampoline.

After school- This is our most challenging time of day. He's worked incredibly hard to hold it together all day at school (which, to his credit, he does very well!), then, literally the second we walk away from the classroom, he starts falling apart. Whining, complaining, calling me names, sometimes hitting me (this is when my "I am a calm mom" mantra comes in handy!).

As soon as we get in the car, I hand him a crunchy snack and his sensory tool kit. If you don't know what a sensory tool kit is, you'll defintely want to read that post. It's a must-have for all sensory kids (and sensory moms!). He usually chooses one of the calming toys to play with- a squeezy ball or a chewy tube.

By the time we get home, he's a little more regulated - still whining but not hitting. He immediately hops on the swing and stays on until he's feeling better. Twice a week, he goes to Jiu Jitzu, which is an amazing activity for proprioceptive, vestibular and tactile input. There's generally a lot of protesting before we go (lord, help me!), but once the class starts, he's good to go. Afterwards, he's in a much better mood.

Bedtime- Since he's easily fatigued, by bedtime, he's skating on thin ice (and so am I!). After dinner, to mitigate sensory overload- induced challenging behaviors (whining, complaining, defiance, fighting with his brother), my husband and I join both boys in the playroom for "special time".

We either choose a calming activity like playing LEGOS or coloring or an activity that gives proprioceptive input like playing catch, kicking a soccer ball or jumping on the trampoline. By the time we head up to take a bath, he's much more regulated and cooperative.

On the weekends, when there's less structure, we do a lot of "on-the-fly" sensory diet activities. Our go-tos are:

  • A timed obstacle course
  • Playing tag/ chase
  • Swinging
  • Dance party
  • Bike ride around the block
  • Impromptu playground outings
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Washing the car with dad

For more ideas, CLICK HERE to download a free 55 Sensory Diet Actvities pdf.

Key Takeaways:

  • A sensory diet can be used in conjunction with Sensory Integration Therapy (OT-SI) to help kids with sensory processing challenges stay regulated.
  • It is a carefully designed, personalized schedule of specific activities that help your child either calm down or stay focused and alert.
  • A child should never be forced to use a sensory diet.
  • It's imperative to tune into your child's specific sensory needs when choosing sensory diet activities.
  • The best time to use a sensory diet is before a typical trigger.

Though it's not a cure-all, when used thoughtfully and intentionally, a sensory diet can be a helpful tool for keeping your child regulated. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below. If your child has a sensory diet in place, we'd love to hear from you! Let us know what activities work best for your child, when he uses them and how they help his behavior and mood.

If you need guidance putting together a sensory diet for your child, CLICK HERE to schedule a FREE 30-minute call.

Related Articles:

15 Sensory Red Flags

What is Sensory Integration Therapy and Will it Help My Child?

Sensory Processing Disorder Symptom Checklist

Sensory Tool Kits- What are they and how do I make one?

An OT Answers Your Most Pressing Questions About Sensory Processing


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.