Sensory processing or sensory integration (SI) refers to how we process information through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Sensory Integration Dysfunction are the names used for when the brain struggles to interpret sensory signals correctly. SPD can make normal everyday activities difficult to manage.
What are the symptoms of SPD?
There are many possible symptoms in babies, children and adults depending which sense or combination of senses are affected. The Sensory Processing Foundation summarises:
One person with SPD may over-respond to sensation and find clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food, or other sensory input to be unbearable. Another might under-respond and show little or no reaction to stimulation, even pain or extreme hot and cold. In children whose sensory processing of messages from the muscles and joints is impaired, posture and motor skills can be affected. These are the “floppy babies” who worry new parents
Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and other impacts may result if the disorder is not treated effectively.
For further information on the general symptoms of sensory processing disorder see:
- The SPD Foundation’s Checklist of Symptoms for infant, pre-schooler, child and adolescent/adult
- A Tale of Two Babies lists symptoms that may be found specifically in babies on the sensoryintegration.org.uk website
What causes SPD?
SPD can be inherited, a result of birth complications or environmental factors, or a combination of causes 1
According to sensoryintegration.org.uk, babies who are more at risk of having sensory processing issues include those with:
Prematurity, multiple births
Down’s syndrome, low muscle tone, hypermobility syndrome
Cerebral Palsy, brain injury
Autism, Aspergers syndrome
Medical conditions limiting a child from moving
Sensory processing and breastfeeding
If a baby has a problem with sensory processing this could affect breastfeeding in a variety of ways. Examples of issues that can impact on feeding include;
- baby being super-sensitive to touch, he may not like being held, cuddled or rocked
- baby being overly sensitive to light or loud noises distracting him from feeding properly
- baby being hyper sensitive to movement and body position making positioning difficult
- baby being orally defensive for example not wanting the breast deep in his mouth or having a heightened gag reflex 2
- baby having difficulty sucking and swallowing, having excess reflux or later, difficulty chewing
- baby being either very fussy or so chilled they neglect to ask for feeds.
Other causes of these behaviours
Not all breastfeeding difficulties are due to sensory processing problems, there can be various causes for individual issues. It is important to rule out these other potential causes of feeding issues or fussy behaviour first. For example babies can be overly sensitive or fussy in any of the following situations:
- low milk supply and poor weight gain—see Baby Not Gaining Weight and Is My Baby Getting Enough Milk?
- allergies—see Milk Allergy in Babies
- reflux—see Reflux in Newborns
- lactose overload or oversupply—see Lactose Intolerance in Babies and Oversupply of Breast Milk
- poor tongue function—see Is my Baby Tongue Tied?
- high muscle tone—see High Muscle Tone
Diagnosis of sensory processing disorder
If you still suspect your baby may have issues consistent with SPD, seek help from your heath professional team including a thorough assessment from an Occupational Therapist trained in sensory integration.
Character traits and sensory processing
Good baby, fussy baby
An interesting article in two parts on the Mobi Motherhood International website shares more examples of sensory integration difficulties, and looks more closely at sensory integration in relation to breastfeeding. The authors explain how a baby’s personality—whether cuddly, uncuddly, up all night, easily over-stimulated, sleepy or fussy can sometimes be connected to a baby’s coping mechanism for sensory overload.
Babies do cry, but if your baby cries for hours at a time in spite of what you do to calm him, he may be having difficulty processing the information he is receiving from his senses. People might remark that this baby is easily over-stimulated. Before assuming that sensory issues are involved, talk to your health care provider to rule out other possible medical reasons such as reflux or an injury.
Another baby who is having difficulties might be placid and sleepy, so his sensory difficulties might go unnoticed. If your baby seems sleepy all the time he may be withdrawing from sensory overload. People would often call this child a “good” baby who needs to be awakened to eat. Before assuming though that sensory integration issues are involved, be sure he is eating and gaining weight well, and that there is no medical reason for his sleepiness…
Helping a baby with SPD
There are many ways to help a baby with SPD once it has been identified. Whether breastfeeding in a dimly lit room for the light sensitive baby, finding a quiet environment for the sound sensitive baby, or adjusting positioning for the baby sensitive to touch.
Breastfeeding and the Sensory World of the Baby, Part II, Beverly Morgan et al, [no date], has many ideas to help babies who are sensitive to touch, light, sound, smell, taste, movement, and balance, and lists additional helpful resources, books and websites to guide you as your baby grows.
Sensory Processing Disorder can present some challenges to the breastfed baby and may often be undiagnosed as a source of difficulty. Once identified by your healthcare team there are help and resources available.