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How does interoceptive awareness help young children regulate and communicate their feelings?

child care provider comforting a sad young boy

Key Takeaways

  • Interoception refers to the awareness and perception of sensations from inside the body. 
  • Children who can’t notice, recognize, identify and respond to interoceptive signals from the body may struggle with self-regulation, self-control, and interpersonal relationships. 
  • We can support children, parents, and early childhood professionals through training in interoceptive awareness. 
Have you ever wondered why some young children find it so hard to express their feelings, or why they exhibit disruptive behaviors? It may be that they struggle with recognizing and responding to sensations in the body.

What is interoception?

Interoception is known as the eighth sensory system, and is involved in sensing signals such as hunger, pain, emotion, and fatigue.

  • Interoception is a sense that helps you feel and understand what’s going on in your body. 

  • Interoceptive awareness refers to our ability to notice, recognize, identify and interpret the body’s signals, including hunger, thirst, pain, internal temperature, and the need to use the bathroom. 

  • Interoception is vital to the state of internal body balance known as homeostasis. 

Books to Help Children Navigate Feelings: Holdin Pott

A story to help children and grown-ups start difficult conversations and snuggle in closer together.

What do we need to know about interoceptive awareness in children?

Children need to learn how to notice, recognize, and identify these sensations so that they can communicate their feelings through gestures and words, rather than through challenging behaviors.

  • Adults often assume that children naturally understand their interoceptive signals, but this isn’t always the case. For example, a child who is overheating may not understand why they feel discomfort or be able to communicate it successfully. 
  • Without interoceptive awareness, children can have difficulty with self-regulation, self-control, and the ability to distinguish between emotions.  
  • Each individual registers their body’s internal messages to a different degree. One child may feel the urge to go to the bathroom, while another child may not. 

Linking Sensory Integration and Mental Health

Learn about the vital role early childhood professionals play in helping infants and young children with sensory processing difficulties interact with their environments and the significant people and relationships in them.

How can we support interoceptive development in children?

When young children can effectively communicate their feelings, their caregivers can assist them in understanding them as well.

  • Teach children to notice different sensations in their body. Build moments into their routine when you can support them in attending to different parts of their body, such as their tummy or head. 
  • Teach them to recognize when these sensations arise during their everyday activities. When they are hot, describe for them that they are sweating or that they look red and talk about what that might mean. 
  • Teach them to label those sensations, using developmentally appropriate language. 
  • Tailor interactions with children to meet their individual physical and emotional needs, watch for children’s cues, and practice reflective parenting or caregiving. 
  • Develop training programs for parents and providers. It’s likely that the adults in their lives would benefit from noticing, recognizing and identifying the sensations that they experience as well. Integrate interoceptive concepts into the early childhood curriculum. 

Dig deeper into early development in our upcoming trainings of The Growing Brain.

Our innovative training focuses on giving trainers evidence-informed strategies with which to prepare early childhood providers for their vital role in building healthy brains.

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