Preventing Sensory Processing Disorder in High-Risk Infants

Kelly Dorfman, MS, LDN discusses how a good neurological diet and healing the gut may stave off Sensory Processing Disorder in a high-risk infant.

Three-year-old Charlie was recently diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), and his parents were relieved to finally have an explanation for his extreme fussiness, poor sleep, and developmental delays. 

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Previously labeled Sensory Integration Dysfunction, Sensory Processing Disorder relates to the commonly known senses of touch (including pressure), taste, smell, vision and sound as well as other senses such as:

  • Proprioceptive sense: This sense helps a person determine where they are in space in relation to other things and people. Children with Sensory Processing Disorder often feel disconnected from their bodies and thus often have poor coordination, which can often lead to delays in social development.
  • Vestibular sense: Proprioception is intertwined with the vestibular sense, which is controlled by the movement of fluid within the inner ear. Because the vestibular sense controls spatial orientation, balance, and the coordination of movement with balance, children with a dyfsunctional vestibular sense often have clumsiness, poor coordination and motion sickness.
  • Interoceptive sense: This sense of what’s going on inside the body is often dysfunctional in a child with SPD. These children often don’t know when they’re hungry, full, thirsty, cold, hot or need to go to the bathroom, which is why these children are often delayed in potty training.

In SPD, the nervous system does not accurately “read” and/or coordinate information about these and other senses. Children with SPD can be over- or under-sensitive to their environment, resulting in odd behaviors such as not wanting to be touched, or conversely, wanting to be held continuously.

Sensory processing anomalies are factors in most developmental delays involving attention, because, in order to focus, one must be able to sort and prioritize information from the environment. Therefore, Sensory Processing Disorder is common in children with ADD/ADHD, autism and learning disabilities.

Sensory Processing Affects the Nervous System

In retrospect, Charlie’s diagnosis was three years late; as a “28 weeker”, Charlie was born 12 weeks early. Almost all babies born more than four weeks prematurely have nervous-system troubles. Preterm babies account for more than 25% of cerebral palsy cases.

Sensory Processing Disorder lacks the obvious physical markers of cerebral palsy and is also caused by poor development of the nervous system. A baby can be born at 26 or 28 weeks gestation because, while not fully formed, all parts are present.

During the last trimester, fat is laid down, and the nervous system, which is 60-70% fat, is shaped. The brain is packed with fatty cells and then goes through a pruning process just before birth to allow for better growth and complex development of the neurons. The process is analogous to making a pie:  Roll out more dough than needed and then trim it to fit the pan.

Researchers now believe that disruption in this pruning process may be one of the causes of autism. Toxins, illness, malnutrition, birth trauma and premature birth can all interrupt critical brain development.

Other factors that may increase risk to Sensory Processing Disorder include medications given to a pregnant mom (including anti-depressants, antibiotics and Tylenol), extended bed rest during pregnancy, and the stressors associated with giving up children for adoption. 

The Mouth as a Sensory-Processing Machine

One of the most highly tuned pieces of sensory equipment is the mouth. Preemie babies who have endured tubes taped to their faces, often are hyper- or hypo-reactive in the mouth, and on the lips and face.

Low muscle tone and an underdeveloped nervous system lead to misreading of taste, texture and temperature, and difficulties sucking and chewing. A poor suck or troubles transitioning to solid foods are early indicators of potential speech and sensory problems, and future picky eating. Sucking, chewing, and swallowing are all prerequisites to talking.

Parents frequently comment that they are only doing speech therapy because they believe language takes priority over chewing and eating. Moving food around the mouth and mastication are the best exercises for training the muscles and nerves needed for speech. 

Strategies for High-Risk Infants

Excellent neurological and biochemical diets nourish the nervous systems of high-risk infants such as babies who miss out on the normal stimulation and gravitational changes associated with movement and touch.

A good neurological diet includes stimulation on the face, lips, in the mouth, as well as on the rest of the body. An intensive oral-motor program from either a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist can normalize sensory processing in the mouth.

Studies show that sensory stimulation causes the neurons to form more complex connections, thus increasing the size and capacity of the brain. 

Some innovative birthing centers are turning moms and dads into human incubators by bundling premature babies into slings that the parents carry around all day. Instead of a static machine, the baby can use her mother or father’s heartbeat, breathing, movement, and heat to regulate. A further benefit is that the bacteria living on the skin of the parent is shared with the baby, and builds immune defenses. 

The biochemical diet for high risk infants must include a multitude of long chain fatty acids. When available, breast milk is the best choice. Nursing mothers should add mercury-free cod liver oil to their intake to assure proper fat balance for babies’ brain development. Vegetarians can get the omega-3 fats found in fish in algae-based docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplements. All babies can benefit from DHA in formula, breast milk, or directly.

Helping the Gut

Good bacteria, or probiotics, help formula-fed babies gain weight properly and absorb the fats they need for brain development. Most premature and colicky babies have digestive systems that are not ready for food. While they need nutrients, eating further irritates their underdeveloped systems.

Good bacteria feed on food particles and produce short-chain fats that act like healing balm for the gut lining. Probiotics also improve immune functioning by producing antibacterial substances and reducing allergic response. 

Bifidobacterium bifidum, or other members of the Bifido family, which normally inhabit the intestines of infants, are the best ones to add to infant formula. Because they are heat sensitive, add to a bottle after it is heated and is ready for consumption. Most good health food stores carry Bifido bacteria for infants in the refrigerator section. 

Help prevent sensory problems in high-risk infants by improving the neurological diet, adding DHA and good bacteria. Start with these interventions preventatively, before sensory symptoms appear.

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