Our senses are an important part of our lives because they alert the body and brain to important cues, protect the body and brain from becoming overwhelmed, select what we need to pay attention to, and organize the brain automatically. Essentially, they help us to understand the world. From the day babies are born, they start to have sensory experiences.
For instance, when babies are swaddled, they experience the sense of touch and proprioception (pressure when touched). When you gaze at your baby, you are engaging their sense of sight. When you rock them, you engage their vestibular sense (change in the inner ear fluid). Over time, sensory experiences help to create brain pathways important for language, cognitive, and physical development. These and other benefits of sensory engagement have led many parents to ask, “What can I do to engage my baby’s senses?” This can seem like an overwhelming task because of the many activity options out there, but it is quite simple.
There are just three things to keep in mind when developing sensory activities.
First, you want to be mindful of your baby’s responses to sensory input. Are there things that they avoid? Are there things they seem to enjoy? Babies display sensory defensive and sensory seeking behaviors. Defensive behaviors are things they do to reduce or avoid sensory input such as when there is too much visual stimulation, they close their eyes. Sensory seeking behaviors are when they actively try to engage a specific sense. For instance, if your baby begins crying when you stop patting their back and immediately stop crying when you start patting them again. Knowing what your child likes and does not like can help you determine what sense to focus on and how to do it.
Second, keep the activity simple. Many sensory activities can engage more than one sense, but focusing on one can help organize things for your baby. Take a water activity, for example, which can focus on touch, taste, sight, or hearing. Just focusing on the sense of touch can help your baby make connections about what water feels like. As babies get older, you will have the opportunity to focus on more than one sense.
Finally, just have fun. Babies mirror their parents’ internal states, including brain chemicals. So, if you are anxious or stressed during a sensory activity, your baby will be, too. You do not want to strengthen those brain pathways. Finding activities that are enjoyable for you will make it enjoyable for your baby.
Sensory activities are so beneficial for babies to learn about the world but can be overwhelming for parents when considering all the ideas that are out there. Being mindful of how your child responds to different sensory input, keeping the activity simple by focusing on one sense at a time, and having fun can help make creating and engaging in a sensory activity at home more enjoyable for you and your baby.
Monet Somerville is a Parent Educator at The Parenting Center. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Developmental Psychology with a Concentration in Child and Adolescent Development. She is also a licensed Trust Based Relational Intervention Practitioner.