What is Sensory-Regulatory Disorder?

Anita Sethi, Ph.D.

One reason you may not have heard of this diagnosis before is that there are so many different names for it. Some people call it sensory-regulatory disorder, others call it sensory-regulatory dysfunction, and still others call it sensory-processing disorder, sensory-integrative disorder or dysfunction, or sensory-integration disorder or dysfunction.

In most cases, what’s being described is a constellation of characteristics that includes over- or under-sensitivity to sensory stimulation, poor regulation of sleep/wake cycles, fussiness, difficulty with self-soothing, and dislike of change. Although many babies can be fussy and dislike change, babies with sensory-regulatory disorder tend to have difficulty with a broader range of tasks that have to do with managing sensory information.

This means that babies with this disorder might jump or cry at the lightest touch and may dislike snuggling. They might find normal light distressing or experience soft music as uncomfortably loud. Alternatively, they might seem under-responsive and not react to sounds or colors unless they are louder or brighter than normal. Some babies are more averse to certain sorts of stimuli than others; they may be more sensitive to light than to sound or to touch than to taste.

Because babies learn through their senses, this can present a big challenge. Your job — the job of all parents of infants, actually — is to adapt your stimulation to meet your baby’s needs. If he’s easily overstimulated, you’ll have to make an effort to maintain a calm environment: no loud music, mostly soft colors, no bouncy games. Warm water is often soothing for sensitive babies, as is swaddling. If your baby is under-responsive, he may like being massaged and may want brighter colors, bouncy music, and lots of singsongy language from you. The key is to follow the baby’s lead. If he gets upset or turns away, it may mean he’s being overstimulated and needs you to stop.

Similarly, you have to learn what works in soothing your son when he is distressed — whether it is to be held, to suck on a pacifier, or to breathe some fresh air — and step in early to prevent the escalation of distress or overexcitement, since babies with sensory-regulatory disorders often have trouble calming themselves down.

Some children with these disorders have no real difficulties when they grow older, although they may always be the ones to ask for the music to be turned down. Others grow up to have learning disabilities, attention problems, or difficulties with interpersonal interaction. You should feel free to ask your doctor questions about his or her perception of your son’s prognosis, as well as for advice about what to do at home to help your son maximize his strengths and to develop strategies to cope with his weaknesses.