Sensory Defensiveness & Feeding

Sensory defensiveness is defined as having an anxious reaction to non-noxious sensory stimuli. In other words, a person has sensory defensiveness 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, but these mild sensory issues usually don’t unduly affect their day-to-day. When multiple defensive traits that impact the person's everyday life are present, that person is considered to be Sensory Defensive.

What are the causes of Sensory Defensiveness?

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, as 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. Their sensory defensive disorder may manifest in different ways–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 the dependence on a feeding tube for their nutrition. Many times these children do not experience daily oral stimulation and this results in oral defensiveness in regards to touch around the face and mouth.

Also Read: Why Won’t My Child Eat?

How Can I Help With Sensory Defensiveness Symptoms?

It can be difficult for us as parents to relate to our child’s sensory defensiveness disorder, so you must respect your child’s decisions during mealtime. If she is giving evidence of oral defensiveness, like 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? Try to understand what causes her oral sensitivity issues and make a custom sensory defensiveness checklist for her. Work on those sensory properties first. 

If she cannot stand to even 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.

Sensory Defensiveness Treatment Activities

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 to incorporate these items and activities at home to combat sensory defensiveness symptoms:

  • Finger painting
  • Playdough
  • Hidden toys in a sensory box made with uncooked rice and beans
  • Cooked noodles and pasta. If your child will not touch the pasta, try placing it in a ziplock bag to let them ‘squish’ the noodles.
  • Kooshie balls with skinny rubber strings attached.
  • Soaps and lotions during bathtime for a more tactile experience. Have your child play on the wall with shaving cream or foam soaps.
  • Proprioceptive activities such as walks, carrying heavy items, pulling a wagon full of toys/books, riding bikes.
  • Barefoot walks on grass or sand
  • Water table filled with bubbles. You can use drinking straws to blow into the water which then forms the bubbles.

Other helpful tips for sensory defensiveness treatment:

  • 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.
  • Rub lotion into their skin as if to give a massage and dry your child off using more firm touch and pressure. This will help because deep pressure is often tolerated more easily than light touch in children with sensory defensiveness.
  • Squeeze glue on paper and have your child fingerpaint with it. When the glue dries on the fingers, have him peel it off.
  • Consider using vibrating toothbrushes for toothbrushing or even vibrating toys. Vibration is sometimes very helpful. Some kids react differently to this, but those who enjoy it seem to find it a calming sensory defensiveness treatment.

If you suspect your child has some form of sensory defensiveness and difficulty processing sensory information, you may 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 sensory activities into their daily routines and into therapy activities to help your child learn to manage everyday activities. If he is a picky eater, it is also important to start adding new foods into his diet.

If you would like further information on sensory defensiveness, 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

At Carolina Pediatric Therapy our expertise and experience benefit not only the child being treated, but their family as well. We strive for excellence in all forms of pediatric therapy and family support. If you have concerns or questions about your child or the services we offer, call us today at 828.670.8056.

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

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