Sensory overload is one of the most common causes of unsettledness in babies. However as parents we tend to focus on ‘physical’ reasons as to why our baby is distressed rather than considering our baby is simply over stimulated and as a result over tired.
As an adult sleep deprivation leads to irritability, inability to concentrate and simple exhaustion. An over stimulated, over tired baby will respond in the same way.
Though often as adults we expect so much of our babies without considering the effect of the stimulation from the environment, other children or adults on the baby.
How does the Sensory system operate?
Each of the senses, Touch, Movement, Hearing, Sight, Taste, Smell and Sense of space, work with each other to give us a complete picture of what is happening in the world around us.
Integration of the senses happens in the brain and the response a baby displays depends on how the information from the senses is processed.
For many babies, there may be a difficulty in processing the information from the senses within the brain, especially when a lot of information from the senses reaches the brain. This is due to immaturity of the brain functioning.
So what happens when your baby receives stimulation via the senses, for example if we look at the sensation of Movement – the action being bouncing in parents arms.
Your baby will process the information from the sensation of the movement i.e. bouncing and respond in one of three ways:
1. Your baby will interpret the stimulation within the brain from the sensation of bouncing as non-threatening and respond in an appropriate manner:-
- Relaxed facial expression.
- Relaxed body, limbs.
- Body movements are smooth, not jerky or arching of the back.
2. Your baby experiences stress when processing the information from the stimulation i.e. bouncing. However is able to produce behaviours which will eliminate the effect of the stress on the nervous system:-
- Sucking hand, fingers
- Fisting hand
- Hand on face
- Bracing body against adult or an object
- Shifting attention to a drowsy state
At this point if the stimulation i.e. bouncing stops, your baby will no longer demonstrate distress behaviours for example crying.
3. Your baby is no longer able to cope with the stimulation of being bounced from the parent, your baby is no longer able to calm himself. At this stage your baby will demonstrate behaviours associated with over stimulation:-
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Finger splaying on face
- Tongue thrusting
- Squirming on chair (older child )
- Frantic or jerky movements
- Arching of body
- Colour changes – flushing, paleness
- Changes in vital signs – heart rate, respiratory rate
Babies who are constantly in a state of over stimulation will have significantly difficulty interacting with their parents and their environment. Alertness for engaging in purposeful play is diminished. Significant difficulty with all daily routines, nappy changing, dressing, un-dressing, bath time, feeding and sleep will be experienced.
If you feel your baby experiences ‘Over stimulation‘, then you may wish to avail of a Specialist Paediatric Occupational Therapist to ascertain the extent of stimulation from the senses on you baby’s development.
The sooner your baby receives professional advice and or input the less detrimental the effect is on long term development.