• Kristina Mulligan

How I Created a Sensory Routine for My Toddler

Just a few months ago, it clicked with me that my son responded better to a stable schedule because his sensory system was regulated. This sense of inner calm helps him work through the tasks of his every day activities. I am someone who has always loved organization and a predictable schedule for my day, but anyone who has or has ever had a toddler knows that you’re not always the boss of how your day flows. Nevertheless, I found a way to incorporate some routine items into our day that promote sensory regulation but don’t cause additional stress.

Keep in mind, I am not a therapist or doctor – just a mom raising a child with sensory needs.

First, let’s talk Senses 101. We are all familiar with the five best known senses – taste, touch, hearing, sight, and smell, but there are also two others that play an important role in a child’s development: the proprioception and vestibular systems. The vestibular system contributes to our balance and our sense of where our body is in space (i.e. awareness of the transition from walking on a sidewalk to grass). The proprioception system refers to our body’s ability to sense where we are in relationship to our surroundings (i.e. your ability to touch the tip of your nose, even with your eyes closed). To better understand, I want to share with you how the sensory system was once explained to me: 

Imagine the sensory system as seven buckets, each representing a respective sense. Ideally, they all would contain the same amount of liquid. At this state, a child’s body is calm and regulated.

One state of chaos is caused by having too much in one bucket, which causes dysregulation. If one cup has overflowed, it is likely that a downward spiral will cause the others will do the same. This creates a feeling of discomfort, which can affect daily activities and cause an outburst of emotions.

On the other hand, what happens when one bucket is less full than the others? Unless a child receives the appropriate amount of sensory input, the empty cup will cause a child’s focus to be preoccupied by reregulating the level in that cup.

It is a lot to ask for a child, especially a toddler, to focus, listen, or learn when their sensory system is in disarray. Being home with my son each day, I have had the opportunity to add some tasks into our daily schedule that create a break during our crazy days to allow for much needed sensory reregulation.

Here are just a few of the elements that I have incorporated that are quick and may even be modifications to your current routine! I try to do them at around the same time each day, if possible, to maintain as much predictability as possible.

1. We start each morning with a long, tight hug. This is a great way to start the day because activities that involve pressure are proprioceptive and can provide calming benefits that last for hours. 

2. During teeth brushing time, we play a song and dance around. Not only do we have fun, but we are providing sound input through music and vestibular regulation through dance.

3. When dressing for the day, Flynn is allowed to pick out his own socks. He can touch all of his options and look at all of the different colors. This also utilizes his decision-making skills: bonus points.

4. If we make meals during the day, we “cook” together. This could be as simple as mixing fruit into yogurt, but the benefits are still there! When possible, we clean up as a team, too.

5. Before bedtime each night, I talk about what the next day will be like (the appointments, what’s for dinner, planned activities, etc.). I try to do this in bed with little lighting and in silence. Talking about the next day allows for even more expectedness and doing so in a quiet and dim environment allows for the senses to come back to a calm state before sleep.

With these tips, along with some other added routine items, we’ve found a balance that works for our family. Some days are better than others, sometimes it just depends on how the stars align or if there’s a full moon. We do our very best and try to just focus on the important things and sensory regulation is a huge priority for me, as a parent. That means I can’t do everything.

As for those less important things? I let them go.

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