Here are ways to minimise sensory overload for your family at Christmas.

Christmas is just round the corner! It comes with a variety of sights, smells, sounds, and social interactions that can be pleasant to some and overstimulating for others.

Believe it or not, Christmas is on the list as one of life’s stressful events. Some families are under enormous financial stress trying to keep up with expectations and others experience sadness and stress from estranged family members and ones they simply cannot get on with.

Not only adults experience stress. For the first few years, children learn about the world through their senses. It may be exciting for your baby or toddler to see all these bright colours, loud music with carols blaring and the hustle and bustle of crowded shopping centres for a short time. However, be mindful that they may be overstimulated and have a sensory overload.

What is sensory overload?

We all take in information about our internal and external environments through our senses such as sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, balance and movement. Sensory overload or sensory overstimulation occurs when the brain is bombarded with too much information from the senses and the brain is unable to process or understand the information.

Just think of the Royal Show with the smell of barn animals and food; sounds of other screaming children, amusement rides, and buzzers from games, car engines revving; touch stimuli from bumping into people within a crowd; the visual input of fast-paced movement including blinking lights, fast moving rides, people and cars.

As can be seen from this example there is a lot of sensory information bombarding the brain and for some children this may lead to sensory overload. These children may throw a tantrum, cry and cling to their parent, become quiet or have difficulty sleeping.

What can parents do?

Shopping

  • If you take your child on Christmas shopping trips, limit the amount of time you are out and consider taking the stroller. Although you may think children have more energy than you, they really do tire quickly from walking around a shopping precinct.
  • Also, consider going out early in the day, before the shops get busy and crowded. Being in a noisy, crowded, space can be very overwhelming for young children.
  • Have regular quiet breaks away from the crowd; find a corner in the shopping centre where it is quieter and calmer to give your baby/toddler some quiet time with you.
  • Swinging and rocking are beneficial for organising the senses, so quiet time can include those activities as well.

Family gatherings

Big get-togethers are part and parcel of Christmas – but some relatives can be pushy  talk non-stop. An adult may find that difficult, just imagine what it does to a baby or child when numerous people want to hold, kiss, pinch their cheeks or simply not notice when they have had enough.

Familiarise your child with relatives they seldom see prior to the family get together by playing a memory game with photos so when your children meets an unfamiliar relative they are more comfortable around them; or prepare your toddler about what to expect on the day by talking to them about the day and reassure them that mummy and daddy will help if they find it too hard.

Christmas Day

  • You and your partner or another family member should try to sit down before Christmas day to work out ways to support each other on the day.
  • Discuss with your relatives (especially if they are the host of the Christmas day celebrations) your baby/child’s routine and care.
  • If your child/baby needs a break, intervene and let your relatives know
  • Take rests or ‘time out’ with your child to reorganise their senses. Put words to how they are feeling if they are overwhelmed. Be warm and reassuring.
  • Keep your child’s bedtime, naptime, mealtimes and other regular activities as stable as possible. These routines provide stability and certainty in the life of the child and help keep them feeling safe and secure.
  • Avoid extra snacks, cakes and chocolates. The rush and fall of sugar in a child’s diet can cause both bursts of energy and fatigue as the sugar wears off. These highs and lows can lead to behaviour difficulties. If you want to give your child a treat, limit the size and consider offering it as a special dessert after an appropriate meal.

Sensory overload or sensory overstimulation occurs when the brain is bombarded with too much information from the senses and the brain is unable to process or understand the information.

Ngala Helpline is available 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm on 9368 9368 or 1800 111 546 for country callers. To book a parenting workshop please visit www.ngala.com.au

Author

Ngala is a provider of Early Parenting and Early Childhood services with a passion for supporting and guiding families and young children through the journey of parenting.

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