What’s the fuss about self-regulation and its impact on development?

Written by Sensory Matters

Published 23 Jan 2023

We live in a world filled with so much information and advice from so many areas that this in itself can be overwhelming! With so much knowledge in our hands – we are still dumbfounded when it comes to raising our children. Parents with more than one child will know that each child is different and so no book or manual can really prepare you for what lies ahead.

Every child (and adult) has a ‘unique pattern of taking in and responding to information from ones senses about their world and their bodies’. This is an individual sensory profile. The art of parenthood – of ‘getting it right on most days’ is in being able to learn your child’s individual profile and be able to co-regulate or adjust your approach to meet that child’s needs.

It is in this relationship where an infant as young as 7 weeks old, and children learn about their world – where they learn to attend, to calm, to be interested in the world, to want to interact with others. Through this amazing gift of parent – child interactions; our infants learn to read gestures and become social beings – to take turns and later develop language.

It is through this relationship that a baby learns to think, to plan and anticipate and later solve problems.

This is why early identification of concerns and intervention is important. This can have an impact on later play, language, learning and school abilities.

As occupational therapists who have a special interest in infants, prematurity, fussy babies and babies and children with sensory integrative difficulties, we are trained to identify individual sensory profiles and then empower you to help your child better tolerate and explore his world. Herein lies the difference between seeking a therapist’s advice vs searching the net or reading books; a therapist should be able to help you understand and meet your individual child’s needs; and help you tailor your environment or interactions to obtain the best relationship with your child.

In infants and young children there are some criteria that can be used to determine if your child may be struggling with self regulation. If they experience 2 or the following challenges:

  1. Sleep disturbance: he/she takes more than 20 minutes to fall sleep & wakes more than twice at night.
  2. Difficulties in self consoling: you spend two to four hours a day attempting to calm your baby.
  3. Feeding disorders: feeding difficulties not related to allergies or intolerance: including refusal to eat, regurgitation and difficulties establishing a regular feeding routine.
  4. Hyperarousal: your baby appears overwhelmed by sensory input and may avert gaze to avoid contact. He/she may appear intense, wide-eyed or “hyper”.

If your child experiences these challenges, it is likely that you would benefit from seeking help. These babies are often medically healthy and your paediatrician or clinic sister may give you the reassurance that all is fine. However you will know that something is ‘not quite right’.  In addition, infants who are premature often struggle with self regulation as many of these abilities are only matured in the last few weeks of gestation. Occupational therapists can already make a difference in NICU with regards to limiting environmental stimuli and facilitating improved sensory regulation.

One doesn’t just have to cope. Studies have found that if this is left unattended to, it may lead to difficulties with emotional regulation and even learning later in life. It is often these children who experience fussiness and who present with difficulties in self-regulation, that the precious relationship that is needed for development is broken down.

Having a child with self regulation difficulties does not mean that your child is not intelligent, does not have potential, is a special needs child or will need a remedial school. It does however mean that you may not just be able to push him/her into a typically labelled ‘box’. This was done when we were kids – being labelled cheeky, naughty, difficulty or lazy. Every parent wants a happy child – one with a healthy self esteem, who can form relationships with others, make and keep friends; and really be happy in life. By recognising regulation difficulties and doing something to improve your primary relationship with your child through therapy / advice, you can be reassured that your are on the path towards this happiness.

So what can I do now?

If your child seems to be developing well, remember the importance of relatipnship and make an effort to spend quality time with your child. Remember the principle of ‘watch, wait, wonder’. Use this as special play with your child where just you and him are in a small space together (no phones etc), have a box of toys out, and watch your child play for 20minutes. Just watch, and before jumping in to teach / coach / educate….wait. This will develop your child’s creativity and imagination. Our children spend so much of their day being taught and trained that they have forgotten how to play by themselves and think for themselves. Using this technique will teach them creativity – a skill that will get them far in life!

If your child is presenting with some signs of fussiness, seek help! You don’t have to do it alone. They can be helped and so can you. Intervention at an early age is often short term with long term benefits. Its never too late to seek help, however the brain is most malleable and developing at such a rapid rate between 1-6 years so we can use this miraculous time to access and change and strengthen certain brain pathways.

If you’re uncertain whether Occupational Therapy or other therapy may be beneficial or is needed for your child – contact your nearest therapist and ask for advice or contact OTASA (occupational therapy association of south africa with queries). If you are concerned about a regulation difficulty, ensure that the occupational therapist that you access is trained in sensory integration.

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