Infants With Sensory Sensitivity: When Your Fussy Baby Takes Over Your Life

Parents are often the first to suspect that their infant’s constant and intense complaints are more than just fussiness.  Sometimes pediatricians pick up on a pattern of edginess that cannot be explained by all the usual suspects:  teething, food sensitivity, temperament.  Having a baby who complains bitterly about the most common events, such as diaper changes and nursing, can take over a parent’s life and make them question their sanity.

Judging by the research literature, you would think that sensory sensitivity only happens to toddlers or preschoolers!  Those 4 year-olds who refuse to wear shirts with long sleeves and cannot handle a car ride without vomiting often started out as super-fussy babies.  Their parents may have tried the lactation consultant, the pediatrician, maybe even the neurologist, in a frantic search for help.  They could have used an OT.

I have treated babies as young as 6 months-old that displayed clear signs of sensory sensitivity after prolonged periods of peri-natal NICU stays or procedures.  Why would a few months in the NICU make a baby sensory-averse to diaper changes and being held?  Well, look at it from the perspective of an immature nervous system.  They got more stimulation than they could handle, and their brains responded by interpreting everything as a potentially invasive experience.  Turns out, a good percentage of children who require intensive and ongoing medical procedures to save their lives don’t recall the experience, but their body does. Ask psychiatrists doing fMRIs, or functional MRI’s, what they see in adult trauma victims.  Parts of the brain that encode emotion and memory will light up like Christmas trees when faced with innocuous stimuli.  Oops.

Progressive NICU’s are making changes, but those nurses have no choice to perform multiple and invasive procedures and do them in a very stimulating environment.  They are working hard at a very difficult task; saving the lives of really tiny, really sick babies.

Is a NICU stay the only way to become a sensory-averse infant?  Not at all.  It seems some infants are just wired to be more sensitive, and some babies need only a little bit of extra excitement to become sensitive.  I treated an infant under 6 months of age that struggled to nurse.  She had the oral motor skills to suck, the swallowing skills to avoid choking, but she disliked the feel of her mother’s skin touching her face.  She nursed until she wasn’t starving, then refused any more.  Her mother felt rejected and not in love with her little girl any more.  The baby wasn’t growing and was constantly agitated.  We worked hard in therapy to help this baby, but until we realized what the problem was, every time her mom tried to get her to nurse more, she was repeating the cycle of aversion and agitation.

My approach for my youngest sensory-averse clients combines everything I know from Happiest Baby on the Block and all my training in sensory processing theory and practice as a pediatric occupational therapist.  The first step is convincing parents that they didn’t cause this behavior, and then convincing them that there is treatment that works.  Combining calming sensory input, environmental adaptations, and skill building in these little babies can make a huge difference in their lives and their family’s experience.  If your baby is incredible fussy and no one can find a good reason, pursue pediatric occupational therapy with an experienced therapist.  It could calm things down more quickly than you think!

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