Sensory Defensiveness & Feeding

Sensory Defensiveness is defined as having an anxious reaction to non-noxious sensory stimuli. In other words, a person is sensory defensive if he/she has a negative reaction to sensory input that is typically considered either positive or at least neutral. It is not uncommon for individuals to have a few mild sensory defensive traits. When multiple defensive traits that impact the person’s day-to-day life are present, that person is considered to be Sensory Defensive.1

What are the causes?

This is a tough question to answer because sensory defensiveness does not always have only one cause. Many of the children seen for Oral Sensorimotor Feeding therapy have tactile sensitivities secondary to a diagnosis of reflux. Other children have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), which as defined by the Sensory Processing Disorder Community, is a complex disorder of the brain that affects developing children and adults. Their explanation of SPD goes on to say that people with SPD misinterpret everyday sensory information, such as touch, sound, and movement. They may feel bombarded by information, they may seek out intense sensory experiences, or they may have other symptoms. Other children may develop sensory defensiveness secondary to dependence of a feeding tube for their nutrition. Many times these children do not experience daily oral stimulation and are defensive to touch around the face and mouth.

What can I do to help?

You must respect your child’s decisions during meal time. If she is gagging at the very sight of a banana slice, do not force her to eat it. There are many steps involved in eating and children who exhibit sensory defensiveness need time to process the individualized steps. Instead of placing the banana up to her mouth, try placing it in a separate container on the tray. If she cannot handle that, move it across the room. Is it the look of the banana, the smell, the feel? Work on those sensory properties first. If she cannot stand to touch the banana with her hand she is more than likely not going to tolerate it in her mouth because the mouth is more sensitive than the hands. Keep this in mind as you introduce new foods into your child’s diet.

Since many of the children seen for feeding therapy tend to have tactile defensiveness as well as difficulty transitioning to ‘new’ foods or even ideas, such as a new cup or spoon, the following sensory activities are geared toward those children. They are not activities revolving only around food, but time spent on these activities will result in an overall reduction in sensory defensiveness. Try these at home:

  • Finger painting
  • Hide toys in a sensory box made with uncooked rice and beans
  • Make a variety of cooked noodles and pastas, if your child will not touch the pasta try placing it in a ziplock bag and ‘squish’ the noodles.
  • Kooshie ball with the skinny rubber strings attrached.
  • During Bath time, use a variety of soaps and lotions for tactile experiences and have your child play on the wall with shaving cream or foam soaps.
  • When your child wants to wash his hands right away after they have become messy, distract him for a while so he knows that everything is fine when his hands are a little messy.
  • Deep pressure is tolerated more easily than light touch in kids with sensory defensiveness. Rub lotion into skin as if to give a massage and dry your child off using more firm touch and pressure.
  • Squeeze glue on paper and have your child finger paint with it. When the glue dries on the fingers, have him peel it off.
  • Vibration is sometimes very helpful. Some kids react differently to this, but those who enjoy it seem to find it calming. Vibrating toothbrushes for brushing teeth and holding vibrating toys.
  • Playdough
  • Incorporate proprioceptive activities such as taking walks, carrying heavier items, pulling a wagon full of toys/books, riding bikes.
  • Walk barefoot on grass and sand
  • Water table filled with bubbles. You can use drinking straws to blow into the water which then forms the bubbles.

If you suspect your child has difficulty processing sensory information and wish to have further testing, consult a qualified Occupational or Physical Therapist who can perform standardized testing and structured observation and then provide you with the information you need. As a Speech-Language Pathologist specializing in pediatric feeding and swallowing disorders, I come into contact with many children who are extremely picky eaters and often these children are hypersensitive not only to various food properties but to other tactile experiences. It is important to incorporate the sensory activities into daily routines and into therapy activities to help your child learn to manage every day activities and if he is a picky eater, to start adding new foods into his diet. If you would like further information on this topic please contact us.



Sensory Processing Disorder Network.

Sensory Integration Activities for Children with Tactile

Sensory Integration Resource Center.

**Several activities taken from individual feeding therapy sessions

Sensory Defensiveness and Feeding, by: Kristina Starnes, MS, CCC-SLP
Published: February 2007 © Carolina Pediatric Therapy

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