Parenting Resource

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

Apr 24, 2019

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.

Your 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—her temperament. Temperament includes everything from how your child reacts to new situations to how easily frustrated she is.

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, your 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 he can manage, he 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 who’s working hard to get more sensory experiences.

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

What you can do

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

If your 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 your 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 her own pace. For example, put the play-dough on the table but don’t “make” your child touch it. Offer a fork or spoon so she 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 your child’s sensory likes and dislikes so that she can explore and try different foods.

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

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

  • Author

    Kathy Kinsner

    Senior Manager, Parenting Resources

    2028572985
  • Author

    Rebecca Parlakian

    Senior Director of Programs

    2028572976