What is Baby Sensory Development?
The phrase ‘sensory development’ gets used a lot in the world of babies - in health visitor appointments, during baby classes, on toy packaging, but what does it actually mean? Understanding what sensory development actually is and how it affects your baby won’t change their development or guarantee they will become an olympic athlete, but it might help you to better read their cues, understand their needs and support all of the hard work they are putting into making sense of the big wide world.
We all have built in sensory systems, which absorb information as we go through our day that allows us to live safely and comfortably and do the things we want without constantly hurting ourselves, falling over, dropping things, getting ill or breaking items. As adults we process thousands of messages through our sensory systems without giving it a second thought, as our internal computer systems are sensitive and smart enough to make decisions and take action on that information without us consciously doing anything. For instance, if you touched a smoking hot frying pan your body would react to the heat and pain and you would jump back away from the danger immediately. But actually, you probably wouldn’t touch it, as you would have smelled the smoke and seen the food cooking and read those cues to know in advance that it would be hot - your sensory systems guide you, but they had to learn how to do all of that through trial and error.
Another example - you are happily relaxing in a familiar space and suddenly you cannot see anything at all! Where has the bed gone? Where has your partner gone? Have they disappeared? No, of course as an adult you know that the light has been switched off, but you can still hear your partner moving around the room, you can still feel the soft mattress supporting your body, you can still smell the familiar sheets, so instead of being startled you relax further into sleep.
8 Sensory Systems
Throughout their first few years children's brains and bodies work hard to make all of these connections and hone their sensory skills.
There are eight sensory systems;
● Touch - provides feedback on the temperature, texture, shape and size of objects in the environment, as well as letting you know that you are in contact with something other than your own body.
● Vestibular - balance and movement are developed as the body grows and strengthens. Toddlers learn their limits by falling over time and time again, learning the effects of gravity and how to work with it to achieve the movements they want to make. The vestibular system also provides feedback and speed and direction of movement.
● Bodily awareness - muscles and joints provide the rest of the body and brain with feedback, telling us where our body is and how much force is required to complete an action. We don’t need to look at our toes to know they are wiggling, this is our bodily awareness in action.
● Sight - gives us awareness of shape and colour, also allows us to observe faces and learn to read social cues.
● Smell - helps us to recognise when things, particularly food, are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, helping us to instinctively avoid eating foods that will make us sick. Also allows us to learn to associate feelings with smells - such as the comfort a baby gets from smelling something with his mother’s scent on.
● Hearing - we can interpret the vibrations that hit our eardrums to know the direction a sound is coming from, and recognise it.
● Taste - Protects us from eating rotten food or non-food, and recognises our preferred foods.
● Interoception - The warning signs that make us uncomfortable, such as pain, hunger, thirst, temperature, exhaustion. This sensory system is particularly difficult to ignore!
Every child processes the information their sensory system gleans from the world differently. Some love the feeling of being on a roundabout, as it confuses their vestibular system and leaves them spinning, while others hate it. Some babies love bold colours, highly energetic play, silly voices and being tickled, whilst others prefer gentle rocking, quiet lullabies and tight cuddles. Every baby, child and indeed person interprets sensory input differently at different times. If they are tired or hungry their Interoception system might be on high alert, meaning that your efforts to engage their sight with a glove puppet won’t hold their attention. Or if they are in an unfamiliar space where they can’t see anything they recognise and they are having to process a lot of brand new sights and sounds, they might seek out the comforting touch of their parent and bury their face in their clothes to get a whiff of that soothing Mum scent and close their eyes to all the information for a few moments.
Taking babies to baby sensory classes, buying monochrome toys or massaging them after bath time won’t change or improve the sensory development process each baby has to go through, but it can give them more opportunities to test out their sensory systems in a supportive and safe way, and take on varied and different information in order to make all those millions of connections that will help them go through the world. Watch their cues and how they are responding to you, and when they are ready and eager to explore movement you can support them through that by offering objects of different weights to play with or taking them to soft play. Or if they are just discovering their arms and legs you can help them to figure out where they start and end by holding toys against their feet and running them along their legs and belly, not just putting them in their hands. Your child will go on their own journey of sensory development, but by understanding what’s going on inside, you can coach them through it, and perhaps keep your cool when they test out how far they can fling their dinner bowl for the fifth time!
Your child will go on their own journey of sensory development, but by understanding what’s going on inside, you can coach them through it, and perhaps keep your cool when they test out how far they can fling their dinner bowl for the fifth time!