Making sense out of child development

There was a very nice article in Parenting magazine about children's sensory development but as is typical of such articles it could have said so much more. So, in the interest of broadening the dialogue, I submitted the following for them to consider publishing:

Making Sense out of Child Development

When we bring our six month old children to the pediatrician’s office we can usually expect the doctor to ask if they are rolling over or sitting up. When our children are one year old the doctor asks about what words our children are saying and if they started walking. Now with new research that helps doctors better understand child development, you may begin hearing different questions during your well-child visits.

In addition to understanding how children develop typical motor and speech skills, researchers are learning about other aspects of development that make a big difference in children’s lives. Sensory skills are not a totally new area of scientific study, but developmental specialists are increasingly asking parents about this aspect of children’s development.

“It seemed that my child cried non-stop from the time we came home from the hospital up until she was six months old,” explains Julie, the tired parent of a colicky infant who was born four weeks premature. “Our baby didn’t seem ready to handle life outside of my body, and the doctors said that this is common in children who are born prematurely.”

Nature designed our brains to experience a warm, comforting, and protective environment in our mother’s body until the time we are born. When children are born prematurely, the brain is not always ready to interpret and process a bombardment of light, sound, and touch sensations. This bombardment causes parents like Julie to struggle to comfort their children who can’t yet tolerate all of the incoming sensory information.

Occupational therapists are health care professionals who are trained to understand the impact of sensory processing on child development. “The occupational therapist helped us understand that we can help our baby by making simple changes to our home routines,” explains Julie. “We learned to dim the lights and how to use swaddling and gentle touch pressure to calm our baby when she was upset. As parents we knew that taking her for a car ride was the only thing that calmed her; now we understand that it was the containment of the car seat and the gentle movement experience that helped her to calm down.”

“A baby’s nervous system can be influenced by small changes in experiences, in the environment, and even in interactions with parents,” says Christopher Alterio, an occupational therapist. “By giving parents information on how to provide a safe and nourishing sensory environment for their children, they become empowered to make positive contributions to their children’s development.”

Researchers now understand that all people have different levels of tolerance to sensory information, and the way that they respond to this information can influence their development and learning styles. A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist who pioneered the study of “sensory integration,” changed the way that child development is conceptualized and studied.

During development, children acquire different tolerances to sensory stimulation. Children who are born prematurely may develop strong sensory sensitivities, such as aversion to touch or to sound. Children who have chronic ear infections may have difficulty interpreting balance information. Some children develop sensory sensitivities and there doesn’t seem to be any specific cause that can be identified. Because good sensory processing is needed to develop a foundation for motor and speech skills, these children demonstrate how delays or differences in sensory processing may increase the risk of developmental difficulties.

Untreated sensory integration difficulties may cause children to have learning problems in school, to have constricted preferences in their play skills, and may have a negative effect on developing social skills. Treatment generally involves providing children with experiences where they can develop skill in organizing incoming sensory information and then demonstrate mature and skilled behavioral responses. For example, a child who fears movement experiences may not develop the motor skills for jumping and playing on the playground. Occupational therapy would encourage the development of skills by engaging the child in play so that the child is better able to interpret and respond to sensory information associated with balance.

Sensory skills are intricately linked to children’s behavior and development. So, don’t be surprised if you begin hearing developmental specialists ask you new kinds of questions like “What kind of sensory information do you notice is helpful for calming your baby?” or “Does your child have the ability to filter out noise and touch distractions in order to remain seated and complete homework or a meal?” When professionals ask these questions and have an expanded understanding of the factors that influence child development, they will be better able to help you and your child.


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