Sensory processing is a frequently overlooked skill in the under 36 month old set. Newborns arrive into the world with an already established preference for taking in the environment around them. They are born with a sensory processing preference either for visual (looking), auditory (listening) or kinesthetic (movement) processing, and this preference will greatly affect how their brain is wired throughout their development from birth to age 3 as well as affect a child’s relationships and learning.
Often, a baby or toddler can have a sensory processing preference that is different than parents and caregivers’ preferences (The majority of us have a preference, which affects the way we take in our world and the way we learn as grown-ups!). It can be a different sensory processing mode than siblings or playmates. Sometimes that can lead to troubles in parenting, caring for or interacting with a baby or toddler. It can lead to trouble establishing a bond or a relationship between young children and their parents, caregivers, family and friends. It can sometimes be tricky for parents, caregivers and early care professionals who work with babies and toddlers to figure out which of the three processing modes a baby or toddler prefers. But, as Audre Lorde (American writer, 1934-1992) said so well, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”
So, how can grown-ups tell which sensory processing mode a child from 0-36 months prefers? We need only look at the way a child responds to different kinds of visual, auditory and kinesthetic input from his or her environment. For example, we can watch how a baby or toddler responds to bright lights versus how s/he responds to dim or low lights, or even complete darkness. Other clues about a baby’s or toddler’s sensory processing preferences include whether s/he likes to look at faces or turns away from faces, whether s/he does not seem to hear words when s/he is looking intensely at an object or person, or whether s/he seems to prefer to watching leaves move on trees or watch vehicles go by versus listening to a parent or caregiver sing a song. We can observe how s/he responds to loud or soft voices, classical music versus rock music or environmental sounds such a pot dropped on the floor, a phone ringing or a dog barking. How quickly and accurately a baby or toddler imitates animal sounds such as “woof-woof” for a dog or speech sounds s/he hears spoken can tell us that s/he may prefer processing auditory information. We can note how a baby or toddler responds to being held or not, being rocked or gently bounced, or being swaddled (or left free to move) in order to observe a possible preference for body movement processing. We can observe whether a baby or toddler prefers movements such as crawling, rolling, climbing or jumping so much that s/he may not be processing visual or auditory input around him or her, putting the child at risk for delayed speech, language or pre-literacy skills. On the opposite end of the kinesthetic, or movement, processing spectrum, we can observe that a baby or toddler is hesitant to explore the world physically and that s/he prefers to stay in the safety of a parent or caregiver’s arms or sit on a bench at the park rather than slide down the slide or attempt to climb a ladder.
Once we are able to recognize sensory processing differences and preferences in babies and toddlers from 0-36 months of age, we can accept and celebrate those differences and preferences in order to shape brain development best as well as to guide learning for school readiness by the age of 3.