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Babies – Solving the Sensory Challenges

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

[Video/audio reading available soon]

This is not about making the sensory experience of your baby better. This is about making your sensory experience of your (or any) baby easier. Because babies are cute and everything, but they are also smelly, loud and unpredictable.

Nobody talks about that, and if they do, it tends to be in gooey “but it’s all worth it in the end” tones. Except, when you’re autistic, and your nose is telling you terrible truths about the contents of that nappy, all the gooey sentiments and incense sticks in the world are not helpful.

The difficulties of dealing with babies (especially newborns) are exacerbated by lack of sleep, the inevitable disruption to your routine and the social expectation that you enjoy this very special time because they grow up so quickly. The first thing you can do to help manage the sensory overwhelm is to understand that your experience of parenting is different to the typical, and that means that it’s okay to be a little more “grit your teeth and get through it” about the whole thing.

What follows is a brief consideration of each of the senses and how they are impacted by the presence of a baby. Also included are some ideas that can help, more as a way to get you thinking than an exhaustive list (that would be simply overwhelming).

The last section includes what I term the Invisible Senses (because they don’t map to a specific organ that can be seen from the outside). These are proprioceptive (the sense relating to how we feel where we are in time and space, related to muscles and joints), interoceptive (the sense of our internal state such as hunger, pain, needing the toilet) and vestibular (balance and movement, related to the inner ear).

Managing Smells

The most obvious source of smell overwhelm is poo. But baby products (including bath wash and creams), food and even the baby themselves (milk breath anyone?) can be difficult to cope with.

  • Think about where you put the changing mat. Somewhere away from the main living area and close to a window that can be opened for ventilation (to get rid of the smell) is preferable.

  • Trying to mask the smell with other smells doesn’t really work. It just confuses your nose.

  • Use unscented products where possible.

  • Double bag those stinky nappies.

  • You don’t have to give your baby food that makes you gag. I say this as somebody who never fed her daughter a banana as a baby. She eats them now, and I just go into another room.

Managing Noise

Being an autistic parent means you are more likely to have an autistic baby, and being an autistic baby means you are potentially more sensitive to changes in your environment (like, I don’t know, being born?). This increases the likelihood of a crying, screaming and other loud expressions. After all, that’s pretty much the only way babies have to communicate.

  • As an autistic parent you may be more able to identify differences in your baby’s cries, which means you can address the needs more quickly.

  • Equally, the crying can be absolutely overwhelming. This does not make you a bad parent.

  • Ear defenders, noise-cancelling headphones and ear plugs are all good solutions.

  • It is important to try to manage your other sensory needs as proactively as possible because the baby noise can be unrelenting and unpredictable.

  • Take all the batteries out of the noisy baby toys. Your child’s development will not suffer.

Managing the Visual Stuff

When my daughter was a baby, she did this weird thing with her tongue that I found really off-putting. I would see other people staring at babies for minutes on end and wondered how they could tolerate it (I did not know I was Autistic at the time).

I don’t think there’s a way to avoid these kinds of visual stimulations that can be sometimes overwhelming. (But it is worth pointing out, your baby will not suffer permanent damage because you are not cooing into their face at every opportunity – as long as some cooing and face to face interaction happens, you’re all good.)

The other kind of visual challenge can be described by the phrase All The Things. Brightly coloured toys, with flashy lights, bouncers and strollers and high chairs and playmats. If you are sensitive to these kinds of things, it can quickly become overwhelming. Plus the whole having a baby thing can make keeping it all tidy difficult at best.

  • Be realistic about your storage solutions. Maybe a big box to shove things in and wheel to the side would work better than trying to keep everything neatly sorted by type in a separate room.

  • It may be more realistic to simply ensure you have an uncluttered space that doesn’t include all the bright colours. A chair turned to a corner of the room with a blank wall in front of you may be enough. Somewhere to retreat to so that your eyes can have a rest for a few minutes.

  • It is okay if your baby doesn’t have millions and millions of toys. Or if you limit access to only a few at a time, with the rest kept hidden away in boxes which are rotated out every few weeks. (I was never organised enough to do this, though).

Managing the Tactile

One of the trickier combinations in the parent-baby world, and one people rarely talk about, is the Super Snuggler baby and the touch averse parent. But even without a Super Snuggler (a baby that needs to be held or touched or carried all the time), a baby does require a great deal of tactile input. Just the practical everyday tasks of feeding, changing, and soothing to sleep can leave an autistic parent “touched out”. This does not make you a bad parent.

  • Let other people do all the baby things, if you can.

  • Some people have found using a sling or baby carrier useful. It feels a little like carrying a backpack and leaves your hands free for other tasks. You can hire slings from special libraries to find the one that works for you. (Bonus point, this can actually provide some proprioceptive feedback, a bit like a weighted blanket).

  • Sometimes, rather than you, your baby can be satisfied with the smell of you. So walk around with bits of muslin in your pocket (or bra) so that it catches the smell of you and put this next to your baby to help soothe them.

  • If you can’t breastfeed because it is too much of a sensory overload, this does not make you a bad parent. It is acknowledging your limitations and coming up with an alternative to ensure your baby is fed, and you are in a good enough place to actually take care of them, rather than permanently on the edge of meltdown. It is not a weakness.

Proprioception/Interoception/Vestibular (The Invisible Senses)

If you are the one that gave birth to the new baby, this means your body has changed from pregnant to not-pregnant. But what nobody tells you is that the not-pregnant body after you have a baby is different to the not-pregnant body you had previously. And it never goes back to how it was. Plus, the body continues to change for while after the birth. Which if you feel everything, can be hard. And if you don’t feel everything, every time you start to work out what might be going on, it changes.

But even without that, the three invisible senses do take some adjusting.

  • Set alarms to remind yourself to eat and drink. Maybe set it to vibrate so it doesn’t wake the baby.

  • Try to ensure you have some of your comfort foods and same foods (the predictable things that you know you can eat without it overwhelming your system) available all the time.

  • Rest when the baby rests. Even if you can’t sleep, use the time to do activities that are going to quieten and replenish you.

  • It can be weird because now you have to push a stroller everywhere so your space is bigger. The extra concentration while you adjust to this is going to add to your energy drain, so try to be patient with yourself.

  • The stroller can actually be helpful if you are a fidgety type.

Please let us know if you think of anything else that can help with sensory overwhelm with babies, or there is anything that we have overlooked.

This is not a replacement for medical and professional advice. Please ensure your baby has enough to eat and drink, has their nappy changed regularly, and has opportunities for rest and stimulation.

If you find yourself regularly feeling totally overwhelmed, please get in touch and we can try to find ways to support you. You may find talking to people with similar experiences helpful in our peer support groups.

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