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Your Child’s Sensory Threshold: Mastering the Messiness of Springtime

toddler playing in rain

Puddles to splash in! Mud that squishes! Spring weather is amazing for some kids. For others, all that splashing and sogginess is way too much.

How children manage the information they get from their senses is one part of their individual temperament. Here’s how to tell what your child prefers and needs when it comes to sensory experiences.

A Child’s Sensory Threshold: I won’t eat that, touch that, wear that!

Every child is born with her own way of approaching and experiencing the world—their temperament. Temperament includes everything from how a child reacts to new situations to how easily frustrated they are.

One part of temperament is sensory threshold. Sensory threshold describes how much sensory information a child needs before he reacts. For some children, even a little sensory info is too much. As soon as you pull on that “scratchy” sock, a child might start to cry and pull it off. Other children can manage a lot of sensory information. You can take them to a crowded, loud birthday party and they’ll love every minute.

When a child gets more sensory information than they can manage, they might cry and act out, or withdraw and shut down.

When a child needs more sensory info than he’s getting, he might seek it out by touching, pushing, pinching, shoving, banging, or making noise. To many parents, this looks like “challenging behavior.” It helps to know that what you’re seeing is a child working hard to get more sensory experiences.

So, the first step is understanding a child’s sensory threshold.

What you can do

Next, think about how you can use information about a child’s sensory likes and dislikes to help them manage the world.

If a child seems to seek out sensory experiences (loves touch, sounds, activity, and exploring through the senses), you can:

  • Offer toys and activities with bright colors and different textures.
  • Provide sensory play, like sand, water, and finger-painting.
  • Go for a walk and name all the sounds you hear.
  • Explore (touch) interesting trees, rocks, and sticks at the park.
  • Play a game of sniffing different kitchen spices like cinnamon, basil, and vanilla.
  • Have a dance party or make music with pots and a wooden spoon!

If a child seems to be very sensitive to sensory experiences, you can:

  • Provide soft clothes with tags removed.
  • Create quiet play spaces.
  • Turn off the TV and other devices to avoid extra background noise.
  • Avoid crowded spaces at peak hours.
  • Introduce sensory experiences slowly and let your child go at their own pace. For example, put the play-dough on the table but don’t “make” the child touch it. Offer a fork or spoon so they can explore without touching at first.
  • Observe what food textures your child likes and doesn’t like. A child may eat fresh, crunchy carrots, but not soft, steamed ones. At mealtime, offer a mix of foods that include some of a child’s sensory likes and dislikes so that they can explore and try different foods.

Note: Some children get overwhelmed by sensory information frequently or have very strong reactions. Parents with questions or concerns about their child’s sensory threshold should talk with a health care provider.

No matter whether a child is the one stomping through the mud puddle or the one walking around it, understanding how they react to sensory information helps you give them the tools to enjoy all the adventures the world has to offer!


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