Your Toddler's Sensory Issues Might Be Temporary
But experts say the answer on if your toddler will completely outgrow them is nearly as complex as the issue itself.
Toddlerhood is wrought with behaviors that parents hope their child will eventually outgrow — tantrums, picky eating, bedwetting, and more. It stands to reason that eventually, your child will grow up and out of the habit of a 3-hour-long bedtime routine, but do toddlers grow out of sensory issues, too?
"It’s at the toddler stage that parents generally start suspecting their child is experiencing sensory processing issues," Lori Caplan-Colon, a Speech Language Pathologist with Montclair Speech Therapy, tells Romper. "A loud noise, bright light, a certain smell, or even mealtime might trigger extreme behaviors in the child. This is because the toddler’s brain is having trouble correctly processing the outside stimulus. This leads to fear, frustration, and a sense of being overwhelmed."
Sensory issues can impact one or more of a child's five senses — touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste — immensely, but they affect each person differently and will not always display the same way in each child. Sensory problems can also impact a child's balance, spatial awareness, emotions, and more. Where some may not be able to wear clothing with itchy tags, others may have a hard time eating foods of certain textures. Since toddlerhood is the time when children are first really able to outwardly express their feelings about the world around them, sensory issues often first present during the toddler years.
Pediatric occupational therapist and author of Play With Your Food, Sarah Appleman, explains that the sensory system is designed to help us survive. "Very simply put, our body uses its senses — touch, taste, hear, smell, see, vestibular and proprioception — to make our brain aware of harm, allowing it to react," Appleman tells Romper. "Sensory processing is the ability to take information from your environment and interpret it appropriately. Children who have sensory processing issues are unable to complete this process due to their brain misinterpreting the input."
The reason why a child experiences sensory issues can vary greatly. Although they are not always interconnected, sensory processing problems are sometimes experienced by children on the autism spectrum. Appleman tells Romper that research into why sensory processing issues occur is ongoing. "Some say it is environmental while others say it is genetic. Some researchers state it is a lack of sensory input when the children are young," she explains.
The answer of whether or not these issues will resolve after toddlerhood is just as complex as the issue itself. "The medical research community really hasn’t spent enough time researching this aspect, so there are mixed opinions," Caplan-Colon says. "There is some evidence to suggest that in less severe cases, the sensory overload is caused by an immature sensory processing system, and the child might 'grow out' of the condition as that system matures. But in the majority of cases, the child will need to develop vetted coping strategies to help mitigate their response to the stimulation."
While not every child who experiences sensory processing issues as a toddler will continue to have them throughout their lifetime, some will. The ability to cope with the symptoms of sensory processing problems is key for children who continue to experience them as they grow.
"In a large portion of cases, children can learn to manage the disorder, and symptoms and reactions become milder and less disruptive to the child's life," neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez tells Romper. "Unfortunately, this is not always the case, particularly in children who are in the autism spectrum. For them, the sensory processing disorder lasts longer, but can also improve with time. It is always important to consult your child's doctor to help guide you. In many cases, occupational therapy helps a great deal."
When my son was nearly 4 years old, we met with a child psychologist to get to the bottom of some sensory issues he had experienced for several years. Among our top concerns was his outright fear of loud noises. He was scared of things like hairdryers, toilets, and cars thanks to the noises that those things sometimes make. In my son's case, his sensory processing problems were mild enough that he did mostly outgrow or learn to cope with them by about age 6, but he still deals with lingering sensitivities today as a third grader. (We once missed an entire movie because a particularly loud preview bothered him to the point that he wouldn't step foot back inside the theater.)
"The first thing to do when our child is going through any condition that's chronic that will need attention and understanding is to educate ourselves," Hafeez says. "Understanding your child's limits is very important to prevent sensory overload and anxiety and this takes time, so be kind to yourself. Minimizing stress is also important as stress can feed the issue and compound what the child is already feeling."
If you've ever dealt with a toddler who experiences sensory issues, you know how confusing it can be. Until you really know what your child is dealing with, it's hard to understand exactly how to help them, so speaking with your child's pediatrician, an occupational therapist, psychologist, or neuropsychologist to fully assess their symptoms is important.
Lori Caplan-Colon, Speech Language Pathologist, Montclair Speech Therapy
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist in New York City, faculty member at Columbia University
Sarah Appleman, MS, OTR/L, Pediatric Occupational Therapist, author of Play With Your Food