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Holiday traditions include a plethora of sensory and emotional experiences. Parties, winter winds, snow piles, savory hot cooked meals, decadent deserts, seasonal music and performances, gift giving and receiving,…the list goes on and on. No matter the season, in nanoseconds our ever working brain absorbs information, analyzes it, and relays response instructions back to the body. Usually the sensory experience is pleasant and nonthreatening. Ah, the thought of fresh baked cookies or homemade chicken soup, makes me feel the yummy in my tummy. When it’s not a pleasant or nonthreatening situation, our immediate reactions are usually appropriate. With icy roads we need to diverge from our normal path and to think about the route to work. Or a fire in the kitchen means get to safety fast and call 911!

This message system is called Sensory Integration, or Sensory Processing. We all have this mechanism as well as variances in how we interpret and respond to sensory experiences. Some of our senses may be particularly well developed and others less developed. For example, a person can have extremely acute taste receptors and identify every ingredient in a recipe, including those never before tasted. This same person can have a poor sense of their body in space, or their body in relationship to objects. So, he’s a fabulous chef, but strikes out every time at bat. This is fine, but what happens when our sensory receptors elicit more than a strike out and reach troublesome status.

Sensory Processing Disorder

When the processing of sensory experiences leads to disruptive behaviors, it’s called a sensory processing disorder. We can have a sensory processing disorder and not engage in socially inappropriate manners. However, when the sensory processing disorder erupts in challenges for the individual, and thenceforth everyone around them, that’s when the sensory processing disorder becomes an urgent issue of concern.

Holidays can be very hard on families of a child with a sensory processing disorder that includes strong behavioral responses. Frequently a child with strong sensory aversions has a full meltdown and needs to be removed from the room where all are gathered. Unfortunately, friends and relatives rarely understand the specific event or the magnitude of daily stress parents endure.

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Holiday Eating Problems

Picky eating can be problematic and can be a sensory processing disorder rather than normal childhood power struggles. With the holidays, and all its festivities, extensive restrictions of what a child will eat can create a difficult quandary. After all, our social world revolves around eating! The child’s refusal to eat anything but chicken nuggets [or whatever food it may be], and there are no chicken nuggets at the event to eat, can result in a tired, irritable child, one of those embarrassing and frustrating meltdowns, along with raised eyebrows and frowns of judgmental relatives or friends.

So what’s a parent to do? This not only affects the child who’s dealing with a world where our awesome sensory wonders are actually painful, but it affects the whole family, and all in the social environment. There are many options for your child to learn self-regulation. It takes time. The holidays are upon us and there’s not much immediate time. The options that may work for you and your child need to be carefully thought-out; planned, for action; and implemented. Consider it a work in progress; one small step by one small step.

Change is an evolution, and it can feel like a revolution! Assess for what works and what doesn’t, read, learn to understand your child more. Recruit support from professionals, your spouse, and those who care about you and your child. At your child’s level of development, involve him in learning the “skills” needed to acquire a sense of peace and control. The techniques learned and used to help your child, require a lifestyle change in essence. They need to become part of your daily regimen. The following are things you can incorporate with your child to help them with a food sensory processing disorder.

Move It Move It

The most effective evidence-based calming “tool” is exercise. Understandably, commanding your child to “exercise” during a fit isn’t going to calm him. During these episodes, usually time alone, somewhere safe, and supervised, is needed. Exercise completed daily detoxifies us of the stress chemicals in our body that lead to anxiety, anger, and explosive responses to aversive sensory experiences. In occupational therapy we call this “heavy work.” For children, we make this play that incorporates lots of physical movement.

Integrate exercise/physical play when your child is most cooperative and energetic. The exercise can be building a snowman, or running and sliding in the snow, or making snow angels. Outdoor air and sunshine as many days of the week as possible has added value. Plan outdoor activities for at least 20 minutes at a time when possible. However, any amount helps.

When outdoor play isn’t permissive, turn on music and jump and dance, or roll and wrestle on the floor. Rolling up tightly in blankets and plopping on pillows and couch cushions can help physiologically “nourish” the child seeking impacts and constant fidgeting and touching of everything. Walking around with a backpack weighted with books or cans of soup can be a constructive indoor play activity. Pretend to go to grandma’s house, hiking, or hunting with no more than 10% of your child’s body weight initially in order to systematically build postural strength and not create poor body mechanics or injury. Increase the weight by a few ounces every week or two, again to develop strong, upright posturing. Overloaded backpacks can lead to rounded shoulders and hunched backs. This hinders the development of diaphragmatic breath support. Proper breathing is important. Pushing items works well, too. Again, encourage the physical activity for or at least 20 minutes, daily, when possible.
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In & Out

Chest breathing is a response of anxiety. Deep belly breathing actually stimulates our happy and calming brain chemicals. At least 80% of serotonin [our happy and calming biochemical], is produced in our gut. Deep breathing is scientifically proven to aid in calming and is also proven to aid digestion. It increases the hydrochloric acid necessary to break down food particles and aid in nutrient absorption. Saying a prayer of gratitude is a great way to encourage deep breathing before a meal. The whole family can raise their arms overhead to help stretch their core for deep breaths to improve, and encourage a sense of relaxation prior to digging in.

Keeping It Down

Children with feeding aversions often have digestion and elimination issues. When I began chemotherapy for cancer, one of the first things advised was to never eat my favorite foods until I knew I wasn’t going to regurgitate. Once a food is vomited, you’ll never want to eat it again. How sad to destroy one of the luxuries of life! This was an enlightening discovery. I could name foods I had once liked and didn’t know why I didn’t like them anymore only to remember the flu or strep throat with upchucking followed eating those foods. How many of our children with problematic eating spat up the foods due to gastric reflux as a baby, or a hyper-sensitive gag response when they were just beginning to take solids and the well-intended parent or care-giver continued to present those foods at many feedings? No so good.

Dietary Concerns

How do we reduce or avoid sugar when holiday feasting includes a plentitude of cookies and candy? Certainly this isn’t the time to deny your child of such sweetness. Instead of refusing, provide nutrient-dense foods in any way your child will consume them. Try masking nutrient dense vegetables and protein in smoothies, casseroles, juices, and soups. Bake cookies, pie, or cake just prior to serving the main meal so the sweet aroma can over-take the scents of broccoli or other foods of dislike. You can also promise a small piece of desert for every bite of nutritious food. Begin the meal with an appetizer of roasted carrots, broccoli, or green bean with butter, a favorite dip, guacamole or avocado slices for essential fatty acids. Keep the portion small to not overwhelm your child. One half of a baby carrot, or green bean may appear doable. A whole one, or quarter cup serving may be met with absolute defiance.

Explore

Practice sensory exploration and observation of foods outside of meal time or at the beginning of the meal. Talk about the shapes of foods, the colors, and the smells. Let your child touch the food with his fingers and talk about the textures. Touch receptors of our fingers are much like the touch receptors within our mouths. When learning to touch the foods with their fingers, children gain confidence and fortitude to touch them with their lips, teeth, tongue, and then eventually to bring them into their mouth and possibly chew them. Allow your child to spit out the food instead of insisting he swallow the newly received food from the get-go. Obviously, these are activities to do in the privacy of your home or in “Food School” with Great Kids Therapy, or another feeding program. Arriving at this level of intake of the food can take weeks. For the child to at least allow it on his plate by your next holiday gathering may be a huge accomplishment.

Sleep On It

With a regimen of intense exercise, nutrient dense food intake, including essential fatty acids, fiber, and healthy carbs, sound and restorative sleep often follows. Ample sleep is as crucial as any of the above suggests for mood stability, learning, and raised threshold of responses to those elements which your child may be especially sensitive. “Sleep hygiene,” as it’s called today, incudes a routine for preparing for bed. Be mindful of how much time a nice warm bath, flossing and brushing your child’s teeth, donning pj’s, cuddling/massage, talking, and reading stories takes your child to a sleepy state.

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If you have concerns about your child’s sensory processing, please contact us at Great Kids Therapy [www.greatkidstherapy.com or 701.205.4194] and schedule a free screening today for occupational therapy and/or speech therapy! We focus on overcoming obstacles so your child’s individual strengths shine through.

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About the author

Sarah is the founder of Great Kids Therapy and the clinic’s director of Occupational Therapy. She has 35 years of experience as an Occupational Therapists with a specialization in pediatrics for over 28 years, including 6 advanced certifications and around 2,000 hours of continuing education. Sarah has clinical experience in a variety of pediatric settings such as: neonatal intensive care, private practice early intervention, mainstream preschool and elementary education, developmental centers [non-inclusion charter schools for disabled children], and outpatient hospital treatment. Sarah is a cancer survivor, an exercise and healthy eating enthusiast; as well as, a wife, and mother of three children.