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Habituation:When it's important not to feel the clothes on your back

All month we’ve been discussing how babies and children learn self-regulation by the process of co-regulation from attuned, responsive parents.

But why is self-regulation so difficult to learn for some kids?

Meg Faure explains that things go wrong when the nervous system and brain’s ability to filter out information doesn’t work well.

Our senses are always perceiving but we are not always aware of what is being perceived. And that’s a good thing. I am able to focus on the writing of this blog because I am tuning out the sound of the lawnmower outside, my slightly cold feet and the feel of the clothes on my back. It’s called Habituation.

Focus becomes considerably harder when all these inputs are front and centre. My daughter once explained sensory sensitivity as feeling in BOLD AND CAPITAL LETTERS all the time, (her water bottle good humouredly sports a sticker that reads “Dear brain, Please shut up”).

UNDER HABITUATION : Sensing more than most

Some babies, Meg says, under habituate and struggle to tune out some sensory input. Many children who are later diagnosed with Giftedness or twice exceptionality may well have shown these traits as babies.

Interestingly Meg has identified that babies who are very sensitive and not able to habituate all the sensory information coming their way, respond in two different ways depending on what she calls their sensory personalities. Some babies act in accordance with their sensory sensitivity and some in opposition to it.

The sensitive baby cries a lot, doesn’t eat easily, is fussy and struggles to sleep. This little one is acting just as you would imagine when his or her senses are all BOLD AND CAPITALISED.

Slow to warm up babies, on the other hand act in opposition to their sensory sensitivity: They take a bit of time, shy and wary of the loud, bright world around them but once they warm up to it they can be gregarious and outgoing. My sensitive teenager is like that now, her world is a constant onslaught and yet she seeks it out instead of withdrawing from it.

Overhabituation: Sensing less than most

On the other hand we find babies that over-habituate. They are less responsive to stimuli, have lower muscle tone and seem more relaxed and calm than other babies. Wonderfully Wired kids with down syndrome over-habituate.

The Settled Baby is able to ignore sensory input. He’s in no rush to do anything and may be slightly slower to meet milestones. He makes up for it by being the easiest baby for parents. He’s acting in accordance with his profile.

The Social butterfly is also less sensitive to stimulation but instead of being ok with that, she seeks out sensory stimulation. She’s into everything, busy and quite exhausting for the parent following her around! Many of these babies may well later be diagnosed with ADHD with their hyper-focus on what they seek out and their struggle sustaining attention on all the rest.

The ParentSense app offers a course on identifying your baby’s sensory personality and how that information can guide your responsiveness to your baby. Download it here.

When to worry

Knowing that babies have different sensory profiles is useful in relaxing into and accepting the baby in front of you rather than constant comparison and fear.

But there are times when early intervention can be a game changer for a baby or child and his parents. One thing to look for, says Meg, is cluster of signs in a specific developmental tract. When one milestone seems a little delayed it’s no cause for alarm but when several are, we seek professional advice.

Listen to my conversation with Meg on episode 11 of the podcast for examples!

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