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Sensory Diets: What Are They and How to Make Them Work for Your Family

While the word “diet” is often associated with unhappy connotations of duty or requirement, a sensory diet is quite different. A sensory diet is a specifically organized plan of tools and activities to include throughout your child’s day to support their participation and engagement in their daily occupations. A sensory diet supports your child’s energy levels so they can meaningfully interact with their family and peers and respond to the daily challenges of life.

As occupational therapists, we consider the child’s specific sensory needs and the activities and occupations they are engaged in.


  • Is the child needing assistance to stay alert, oriented, and engaged?

  • Is the child having difficulties regulating these energy levels, to focus and participate in certain activities?

  • Does the child have difficulties managing their sensory differences, ultimately impacting their emotional response when completing daily activities or interacting with others?

Children who seem to always be on high alert, may need supports to calm their nervous system. Similarly, children who appear over-active and energized, require sensory tools to give them the input they need to achieve that “just right” level energy. Other children may seem disengaged, uninterested, or unmotivated, and benefit from tools to excite their bodies.


When considering your child’s behaviors and how sensory strategies can offer support, it is important to understand the different kinds of sensory input. To calm a child’s sensory system, the input should be predictable, sustained, and expected. Alternatively, to alert a child’s sensory system, the input should be unpredictable, unfamiliar, and constantly changing. Think of it like the difference between spinning on a tire swing vs rocking in a chair. Your child may require alerting sensory input in the morning to help start their day, and calming input after lunch to sustain attention to schoolwork. When considering the need for a sensory diet, it is important that you speak with your occupational therapist about your child’s daily routines and activities.


HOW TO BUILD A SENSORY DIET FOR YOUR CHILD

The first step to building a sensory diet is determining the child’s need. Common indicators include:

  • Emotional reactivity

  • Frequent meltdowns

  • Difficulties with attention and focus

  • Sensory seeking behaviors (ex. Excessive running, jumping, pushing, spinning, yelling, tumbling, pushing)

  • Avoidance with basic activities of daily living (ex. Teeth brushing, toileting, dressing)

  • Poor body awareness and safety awareness

  • Difficulties with social functioning


The next step is assessing how these challenges are impacting your child’s participation in activities that are meaningful and important to them.

  • Are they having difficulties engaging in family mealtime?

  • Are they unable to complete their independent work at school, or attend to the teacher’s instruction?

  • Do they find it hard to interact with other children on the playground?


The final step is working with your occupational therapist to discuss your daily and weekly schedule, and what delivery method works best for you. It is important that the sensory diet does not feel like an extra job placed on you and your family. Our goal as occupational therapists is to weave these sensory based tools and activities into your daily occupations, roles, and routines. Some families need the “diet” to feel like a prescription to help with carryover and application. Other families prefer a unique, but general list of suggestions to accommodate their child’s needs.




Reference: Kolstad, M. 2021: https://emergepediatrictherapy.com/sensory-diets/

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