As a pediatric speech-language pathologist for 9 years, a mama of two under 5 years old, and someone who easily experiences sensory overwhelm, I am here to talk about our sensory system and the sensory processing differences that we experience in motherhood. (Which kind of feels like that sensory overload that you feel when you’re at a carnival, am I right?!)
External & Internal Senses
Growing up, we learned about our 5 senses. But believe it or not, there are actually 8 senses–5 are external senses and 3 are internal senses:
- Visual (seeing)
- Auditory (hearing)
- Olfactory (smell)
- Tactile (touch)
- Oral/Gustatory (taste)
- Vestibular (sense of head movement in space)
- Proprioceptive (sensations from muscles and joints)
- Interception (sensations related to internal organs)
Managing our own sensory needs is one of the most critical acts of self-care that mothers of small humans need to be prioritizing. By understanding your sensory processing systems and basic sensory needs, you will internalize how important sensory self-care is.
Sensory processing is one of our most primitive brain functions.
If it is not functioning properly, our brain’s ability to do some of the higher-level functions is severely compromised. For example, accessing past memories, planning, holding a conversation, and regulating your own emotions in the thick of a toddler tantrum. It is really important as moms to recognize that our sensory needs are not just a matter of mindset. They are primitive body processes; it is literally a reflex!
Sensory processing is the body’s system of receiving sensory information from the environment, organizing it in the brain, and responding appropriately. Everything we experience is filtered through our sensory system. Our response may be emotional or physical, but it all starts with our senses. If we were to break it down, we would have three main areas:
- Discrimination: the ability to register sensory input from the 8 senses.
- Processing: gives the input meaning; we can identify where it came from and the intensity of the input.
- Response/Modulation: how we react to the input–over-responsive, under-responsive, sensory seeking.
Sensory modulation/regulation refers to the behavioral and emotional responses to sensory input. A person that is well-modulated/regulated is able to pay attention and effectively deal with sensory inputs and challenges while remaining calm.
Sensory dysregulation means your brain is constantly interpreting sensory information. Like it is a full cup, really hard to empty, and always teetering on the edge of overflowing. As mothers, we find ourselves in a very unique life stage. Biologically, our bodies are more sensitive to the sensory world around us and physically, our day-to-day lives with young children are very sensory-rich.
Here’s a visual: Have you ever wondered why you feel over-touched and like you just need silence so often as a mom? Have you ever wondered why you are not able to think or even function in the middle of your toddler’s tantrum? Especially if these are things you never felt before you become a mom?
There are 3 reasons why we feel this way and the general reason is due to sensory overload/dysregulation:
Sensory Profile/Neurological Threshold
Each of our brains can tolerate a certain amount of each sensation. Each of our sensory systems has its own threshold and they can all be different. For example, you could be sensitive to sound (low threshold), but need more sense of touch (high threshold). Our threshold fluctuates throughout our lifetime and also throughout our day. There are things specifically in motherhood that lower our threshold and make us more sensitive to the sensory information around us, such as:
- Mental load
- Sleep deprivation
- Extended times of being “on” with no downtime
When we are stressed, anxious, or highly focused, our bodies release various stress hormones to help us function on a high level of alertness, i.e. the sympathetic nervous system is activated. It switches our brains and bodies into fight or flight to prepare us to function at our highest level. When we are in this mode, we are highly sensitive to what is happening around us and our sensory systems are ready to go, i.e., our neurological threshold is low. We can work on building our tolerance level little by little by adapting our environment, depending on our sensory profile.
The second reason that mothers of small children experience dysregulation more is based on the environment that we find ourselves in. As mothers of young children, we take in A LOT of sensory information all day long. Often all at once and with very few breaks.
- Tactile/Touch: Constantly carrying your littles? Picking up? Cuddling? Being over-touched is the norm with toddlers.
- Auditory/Noise/Sound: Giggles? Crying? Siblings fighting? Toys that make noise? Cocomelon background noise? While trying to make an adult phone call?
- Visual/Sight: Let’s talk about that toy clutter, though… maybe a visual of that pile of laundry you haven’t been able to get to?
- Vestibular/Head Movement: I now suffer from chronic back pain ever since I became a mother. The constant amount of bending–whether it’s to put on shoes, kiss a boo boo, pick up toys, or pick up your child–all that is activating your vestibular system around the clock.
The list goes on and on and on. Being a mom of small kids definitely stimulates our senses all day long. We are trying to stay regulated at a very high level of sensory intensity. (Be gentle with yourself!) Minimizing the sensory information around you, changing the environment, and connecting with nature are crucial for promoting self-regulation.
The Task at Hand
The third reason that mothers of small children experience dysregulation more is based on the task at hand at that current moment. We may be able to stay calm for a longer period of time if we weren’t trying to focus on writing an email when we got triggered. Alternating highly focused times and times of high sensory demand is crucial for promoting self-regulation.
I do want to be clear, though–our kids being noisy, playful, and needing to be cuddled is a good thing! This is how they are supposed to be! However, we need to recognize our sensory triggers and regulate our sensory systems in order to fully show up as a parent. We cannot co-regulate when we, ourselves, are dysregulated. A dysregulated adult CANNOT regulate a dysregulated child.