Preventing Sensory Processing Disorders

By Kelly Dorfman, M.S., L.D.N., Cofounder DDR

Three year old Charlie was recently diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD). His parents were relieved to finally have an explanation for his extreme fussiness, poor sleep, and developmental delays.

What are Sensory Processing Disorders?

Previously labeled sensory integration dysfunction, sensory processing disorders relate to touch, pressure, sound, and movement. In SPD, the nervous system does not accurately read and/or coordinate information about these and other senses. Youngsters with SPD can be over- or under-sensitive to their environment, resulting in odd behaviors such as not wanting to be touched, or conversely, wanting to be held continuously. Sensory processing anomalies are factors in most developmental delays involving attention, because, in order to focus, one must be able to sort and prioritize information from the environment.

Sensory Processing Affects the Nervous System

In retrospect, Charlie’s diagnosis was three years late. As a "28 weeker", Charlie was born 12 weeks early. Almost all babies born more than four weeks prematurely have nervous system troubles. Preterm babies account for more than 25% of cerebral palsy (cp) cases. Sensory disorders lack the obvious physical markers of cp, and are also caused by poor development of the nervous system.

A baby can be born at 26 or 28 weeks gestation because, while not fully formed, all parts are present. During the last trimester, fat is laid down, and the nervous system, 60-70% fat, is shaped. The brain is packed with fatty cells and then goes through a pruning process just before birth to allow for better growth and complex development of the neurons. The process is analogous to making a pie. Roll out more dough than needed and then trim it to fit the pan. Researchers now believe that disruption in this pruning process may be one of the causes of autism.

Toxins, illness, malnutrition, and premature birth can all interrupt critical brain development. Other factors that may increase risk to sensory disorders include vaccines given to pregnant women, extended bed rest during pregnancy, and the stressors associated with giving up children for adoption.

The Mouth as a Sensory Processing Machine

One of the most highly tuned pieces of sensory equipment is the mouth. Preemie babies who have endured tubes taped to their faces, often are hyper- or hypo-reactive in the mouth, and on the lips and face. Low muscle tone and an underdeveloped nervous system lead to misreading of taste, texture and temperature, and difficulties sucking and chewing.

A poor suck or troubles transitioning to solid foods are early indicators of potential speech and sensory problems, and future picky eating. Sucking, chewing, and swallowing are all prerequisites to talking. Parents frequently comment that they are only doing speech therapy because they believe language takes priority over chewing and eating. Moving food around the mouth and mastication are the best exercises for training the muscles and nerves needed for speech.

Strategies for High Risk Infants

Excellent neurological and biochemical diets nourish the nervous systems of high risk infants such as babies who miss out on the normal stimulation and gravitational changes associated with movement and touch. A good neurological diet includes stimulation on the face, lips, in the mouth, as well as on the rest of the body. An intensive oral-motor program from either a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist can normalize sensory processing in the mouth. Studies show that sensory stimulation causes the neurons to form more complex connections, thus increasing the size and capacity of the brain.

Some innovative birthing centers are turning moms and dads into human incubators by bundling premature babies into slings that the parents carry around all day. Instead of a static machine, the baby can use her mother or father’s heartbeat, breathing, movement, and heat to regulate. (See Mothering, Mar-Apr 2006.) A further benefit is that the good bacteria living on the skin of the parent is shared with the baby, and builds immune defenses.

The biochemical diet for high risk infants must include a multitude of long chain fatty acids. When available, breast milk is the best choice. Nursing mothers should add mercury-free fish oils to their intake to assure proper fat balance for babies’ brain development. Vegetarians can get the omega-3 fats found in fish in algae-based docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplements.

All babies can benefit from DHA in formula, breast milk, or directly. DHA Purity, available from is an algae derived liquid supplement suitable for babies. Use ¼ ml for babies less than 6 months.

Helping the Gut

Good bacteria or probiotics help formula-fed babies gain weight properly and absorb the fats they need for brain development. Most premature and colicky babies have digestive systems that are not ready for food. While they need nutrients, eating further irritates their underdeveloped systems. Good bacteria feed on food particles and produce short chain fats that act like healing balm for the gut lining. Probiotics also improve immune functioning by producing antibacterial substances and reducing allergic response.

Bifidobacterium bifidum, or other members of the bifido family, which normally inhabit the intestines of infants, are the best ones to add to infant formula. Because they are heat sensitive, add to a bottle after it is heated and is ready for consumption. Most good health food stores carry bifido bacteria for infants in the refrigerator section.

Help prevent sensory problems in high risk toddlers by improving the neurological diet, adding DHA and good bacteria. Start with these interventions preventively, before sensory symptoms appear. If no problems occur you may not know if you have prevented delays, but the only side effect is a healthy, happy baby.

For more on feeding premature and high-risk infants, read Fuhrman’s Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids RightDisease-Proof Your Child, Galland’s Superimmunity for Kids : What to Feed Your Children to Keep Them Healthy Now, and Prevent Disease in Their FutureSuperimmunity for Kids, and Schmidt’s Brain-Building Nutrition: How Dietary Fats and Oils Affect Mental, Physical, and Emotional IntelligenceBrain-Building Nutrition.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 11, Number 3 - Spring, 2006]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.

5801 Beacon Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15217 | P: 800.497.0944 | F: 412.422.1374

Page last modified: February 23, 2009
©2009 Developmental Delay Resources. All rights reserved.