The ‘sensational’ tot: Recognizing—and dealing with—Sensory Processing Disorder

Worried something might be amiss with your child’s developing senses? Learn the ins-and-outs of SPD.

The ‘sensational’ tot: Recognizing—and
dealing with—Sensory Processing Disorder

Envision two unique babies.

Benjy has been on the go since Day 1.Constantly active, frequently fretful, easily startled, and a fitful sleeper, he sure keeps his parents on their toes. Speaking of toes, he skipped crawling and walked on tiptoes at nine months! Mom and Dad are exhausted—but that's just how it is with an infant, they guess.

Valerie's parents appreciate her peaceful nature. She goes to anyone, naps often, sleeps all night, and is content being moved from car to grocery cart to stroller to house, strapped in her baby seat. Her parents notice that she's uninterested in watching it snow or grasping a rattle, but she does seem entranced with the laptop's screensaver beside her on the kitchen counter.

Two very different tots—one underlying disorder.

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is the inefficient processing of messages from a person's body or environment received through the senses.

Children with SPD may be over-responsive to certain sensations, such as sudden touch or movement. However, some may be under-responsive, not noticing that the door slammed or the hammock is swaying.

Some tots with SPD may be cravers, seeking loud noises, flickering lights, and vigorous movement.

Others may misjudge differences among sensations—are they moving up or down, forward or backward? Is the water hot or cold?

Many with SPD are unusually clumsy, bumping into furniture, stumbling, and struggling to catch a beach ball or alternate feet to climb stairs.

Rather than growing out of it completely, children with severe SPD usually grow into it as they develop, sticking to regular routines and familiar environments that help them feel safe and comfortable.

SPD is not a learning disability, but it can lead to academic and social problems, as a child may be inclined to avoid ordinary childhood experiences that are distressing, such as messy art and science projects, circle games with other children, new foods, and other sensory stimuli.

Here are a few of the common signs of Sensory Processing Disorder in children. If your child shows one or two of these behaviors, not to worry! Therapists typically only diagnose SPD when an individual's symptoms are severe enough to negatively impact everyday life.

Sensory over-responsivity

• Resists being touched or held

• Is distressed by baths, hairbrushes, and messy hands or face

• Cannot tolerate textures of most clothing or sheets

• Is a picky eater

• Keeps hands fisted and won't put bare feet on the ground

• Covers eyes or ears frequently

• Is apprehensive of sudden movement, playground equipment, car rides, or elevators

Sensory under-responsivity

• Seems oblivious to irritating touch sensations like itchy fabric

• Is unbothered by inoculations or bruises

• Ignores loud noises

• Does not notice when name is called

• Does not notice when s/he is falling

Sensory craving

• Touches everything

• Bumps and crashes, seeking deep pressure into skin and muscles

• Seeks intense movement, constantly rocking, swinging, jiggling, or climbing

• Enjoys shaking and nodding head, twirling, or being upside down

• Sniffs objects and people

• Puts inedible objects in mouth after 2 years of age

• Speaks in booming voice

Inefficient sensory discrimination

• Misjudges distance to a ledge or to moving objects such as kids swinging

• Has difficulty seeing differences in faces, pictures, and letters such as “b" and “d"

• Has difficulty hearing differences in voices, tunes, and sounds such as “g" and “k"

• Gets confused when orienting limbs to get dressed

• Can't tell if milk has soured or food is sufficiently chewed

Inefficient sensory-based motor skills

• Has loose or “floppy" muscle tone

• Trips “on air" (i.e., without an apparent obstacle)

• Has difficulty using both sides of the body together to clap or read

• Has difficulty thinking up, planning, and carrying out novel and complex actions, such as negotiating an unfamiliar obstacle course

• Shows reduced fine-motor skills for drawing, writing, or articulating words

• Shows reduced gross-motor skills for crawling, running, or climbing

If you think your child may be showing signs of Sensory Processing Disorder, chat with your pediatrician or ask for a referral to a pediatric occupational therapist. If you think something is amiss with your child's development, listen to your motherly instinct! No one knows your tot like you do.

Fortunately, SPD is treatable, especially when children are young and their brains are malleable.

Looking for a few activities to introduce sensory-motor experiences and enhance your child's developmental skills at home?

Try these hands-on, body-on activities with your little one!

• Circle games (e.g., Hokey Pokey or Duck, Duck, Goose)

• Resistive activities (Tug-o-War or gentle roughhousing)

• Heavy work activities (carrying bags of potatoes and buckets of water, digging, or pushing a stroller)

• Follow-the-leader

• Stretching activities (crouching like a seed and gradually “growing")

• Playing in tubs filled with water, sand, beans, rice, mud, shaving cream, or other ingredients pleasing to the touch

Whether your child is diagnosed with SPD, or simply needs a little extra time to develop basic sensory-motor skills, fear not, mama! Now that you know the signs of SPD, you can stop worrying so much and seek help if necessary. In the meantime, have fun with your child, go outdoors daily, and join the ranks of parents everywhere raising “sensational" kids.

Join Motherly

Without camps and back-to-school plans still TBD, the cries of "I'm bored!" seem to be ringing louder than ever this summer. And if you're anything like me, by August, I'm fresh out of boxes to check on my "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys.

With that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite wooden toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.


Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!


Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.


Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.


Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.


Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.


Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.


We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.


Sorry, you can’t meet our baby yet

Thank you for understanding. ❤️

In just over three weeks, we will become parents. From then on, our hearts will live outside of our bodies. We will finally understand what everyone tells you about bringing a child into the world.

Lately, the range of emotions and hormones has left me feeling nothing short of my new favorite mom word, "hormotional." I'm sure that's normal though, and something most people start to feel as everything suddenly becomes real.

Our bags are mostly packed, diaper bag ready, and birth plan in place. Now it's essentially a waiting game. We're finishing up our online childbirth classes which I must say are quite informational and sometimes entertaining. But in between the waiting and the classes, we've had to think about how we're going to handle life after baby's birth.

I don't mean thinking and planning about the lack of sleep, feeding schedule, or just the overall changes a new baby is going to bring. I'm talking about how we're going to handle excited family members and friends who've waited just as long as we have to meet our child. That sentence sounds so bizarre, right? How we're going to handle family and friends? That sentence shouldn't even have to exist.

Keep reading Show less

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have kids—so here’s what I did

We asked our three most pessimistic friends who have kids whether it's worth it or not

As told to Liz Tenety.

Around the time my husband and I were turning 30, we had a genuine conversation about whether or not we wanted kids. I was the hesitant one because I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Let's just hold on. Okay, let's talk about this. Because we love our life. We like traveling. Is this what we want?"

My husband said, "Let's ask our three most pessimistic, crabby friends who have kids whether or not it's worth it."

And every single one of them was like, "Oh, it's unmissable on planet earth."

So when I got pregnant, I was—and I'm not ashamed to say this and I don't think you should be—I was as connected with the baby in my belly as if it were a water bottle. I was like, I don't know you. I don't know what you are, but you can be some gas pain sometimes, but other than that, we're going to have to meet each other and suss this relationship out.

But all the cliches are true that you just know what to do when the baby comes out. Some of the times are hard, some of them are easier, but you just gotta use your gut.

Keep reading Show less