What Is A Sensory Diet?  

Sensory Diets: The Breakfast of Champions

Answers to all your sensory diet questions.

Written by Katie Bartlow, OT

What is a sensory diet?

Why do a sensory diet?

How to perform a sensory diet?

What is a sensory diet?

To understand what a sensory diet is, we first need to understand sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Simply put, SPD is when the sensory input received is not processed or organized accurately, resulting in the sensory information being inaccurately interpreted by the person. Leading them to not respond appropriately to the sensory experience. 

Likely you've come across the phrase ‘sensory diet’ while reading about sensory processing disorder. You’ve probably figured out a sensory diet is not a food diet, but an activity diet.

A sensory diet consists of performing activities that provide specific types of sensory input to help a child regulate and learn how to process sensory input more effectively.

Sensory diets are unique to the individual and their needs. Because of this, there will be some experimentation along the way to find exactly what works for your child and situation.
 It is important to connect with an Occupational Therapist trained in sensory integration so you can learn how to most successfully include a sensory diet in your child’s day.

Here are some guidelines that give us a starting place when creating a sensory diet. I include activities in these four sensory categories:

1. Vestibular

2. Active Proprioception 

3. Passive Proprioception

4. Tactile

We’ll discuss each of these below and give a few examples. Remember, everyone is affected by sensory input differently, and your child may or may not respond as described below. It’s important to observe and make notes of what works and doesn’t work in your situation.

Vestibular input refers to where you are in space.
These activities usually help increase arousal, they can ‘wake’ you up and help you become more alert.

Examples: Swinging, rolling, being upside down, spinning, and jumping.

Active and passive proprioception

Proprioception is body awareness. It’s your ability to know where your body is in space without using your eyes (vision).

Proprioceptive activities are typically calming- the passive ones more than active.

Active proprioceptive activities are ones that you are engaged in, doing something, actively using your muscles. These activities can help increase arousal and fulfill seeking needs.

Passive proprioceptive activities are when you are not ‘doing’ anything but rather receiving the input. Again, these are typically calming and help with regulation.

Active proprioception: pushing, pulling, carrying heavy items, animal walks, star
jumps, wall pushes, and yoga poses.
Passive proprioception: Squishes, joint compressions, massage, and rolling or
wrapping up in a blanket.


Tactile input is touch, what you feel.

This input can be calming for some, but for those that are more sensitive to touch sometimes, they are overwhelming.

Examples:  Wilbarger brushing, rice or bean bin, water play, bubbles, using different sponges or loofahs, and playing with different fabric textures.

Why perform one

Why should you perform a sensory diet? How are they beneficial for sensory processing disorder?

Those with sensory processing disorder have difficulties processing the sensory input they receive. At times this can result in unwanted, unsafe, or inappropriate behavior, it can make engaging with life’s daily activities more challenging.

The goal is to figure out and provide your child with the right sensory input to meet their sensory needs. Some children may need more input, others may be overly sensitive and avoid input, and lots fall into both categories!

Seekers and avoiders

If your child is a seeker, they typically want more sensory input.
 If your child is an avoider they struggle with certain inputs, can become overwhelmed, or not engage with certain activities.

For the seeker, we want to provide the right input to fulfill their needs and help with regulation.

For the avoider, we want to help them process sensory input easier, and work to desensitize to inputs that are. difficult.

When the sensory needs of a child are met this allows them to be more engaged, successful, and focused. Instead of using their energy to meet their own sensory needs, they will be able to put that energy elsewhere.

We know that over time with continued exposure to different sensory inputs (performing a sensory diet) a child’s nervous system can adapt and become more successful at processing sensory input. This happens due to neuroplasticity.

How to

Now you know you should be performing a sensory diet with your child, but how exactly do you do a sensory diet?

Remember that a sensory diet includes activities that provide different sensory experiences.

A well-rounded sensory diet consists of doing an activity from each of the sensory categories discussed earlier. Exposing your child to a variety of sensory input to help them learn to take in, process, and respond to sensory input more successfully.

A simple sensory diet may look like this:

● Rolling or doing helicopter spins (vestibular)

● Bear walks or wall pushes (active proprioceptive)

● Blanket roll up or joint compressions (passive proprioceptive)

● Rice bin play or skin brushing (tactile)

● Steamroller or squishes with a ball (passive proprioceptive)

 * I like to end a sensory diet with a passive activity since these are normally calming and regulating.

Working to establish a daily routine of doing a sensory diet is best, this allows you to be more consistent and successful. 

I encourage families to perform a sensory diet every day, if not more depending on their child’s needs. The goal is to fulfill their child's sensory needs allowing them to engage in their daily activities with greater ease.

For the kid that wants more input, the sensory diet is working to fulfill their seeking needs.

For the kid who avoids input, we have to start by meeting them where they are and gradually work up exposure to more and different kinds of input to help them process it better.

Two sensory diet approaches

You can think about performing a sensory diet and/or providing sensory input in two ways.

One is more reactive and the other proactive. I encourage you to use each of these approaches.

First, we will discuss the reactive approach.

Performing an activity and getting an immediate effect.

It’s like when you have a headache and you take medication to get relief from the discomfort.

In the sensory world, you would see that your child struggling to stay regulated, they may start to display sensory seeking or avoiding behaviors. You then would assist to provide the appropriate input to help meet their sensory needs at that moment.

This strategy is very beneficial. It can help a child reengage when they have become overstimulated or dysregulated. It can improve behavior in certain situations, improve focus and attention which allows for greater success in their daily activities.

Use this strategy often, observe your child and make notes of their needs and what activities help them regulate.

The other approach is proactive.

Performing a sensory diet to improve overall sensory processing for the long term.

Also used to help prepare for a challenging sensory experience.

Let’s return to our headache example. In the proactive approach, it would be working on the muscle tension that causes your headaches to help prevent future ones.

In the sensory world, you would be engaging your child in a sensory diet regularly, even when they are not displaying a ‘need’.

The goal is to help them stay regulated and reduce the fluctuating behaviors that can occur with sensory processing. You do this by providing them with what they need before they even know they need it.

With this strategy, you may know your child seeks heavy work or proprioceptive input, so you work in sensory breaks during the day performing activities to get proprioceptive input, to help them stay regulated.

Let's look at an example.

Perhaps your kid gets overwhelmed at the grocery store. Maybe they have outbursts, cry, try to run away, touch things that they shouldn't, etc. Obviously, this can make shopping very challenging. It may result in you avoiding the store altogether with your child.

 The reactive strategy would be seeing the behaviors come out while in the grocery store and then providing the sensory input to help your child calm down, regulate, and continue shopping.

The proactive strategy may look like providing your child some focused sensory input before going into the grocery store. The goal is to give them the input they need to help prepare them for the difficult activity. Providing the input prior can help them be better regulated before even starting the task.

Again, neither strategy is right or wrong, and most likely you will utilize both. Providing input prior, but then providing quick sensory breaks as needed during a task or activity.


It’s important to learn which activities help bring your child back into that ‘just right state’. Put those tools in your toolbox and use them as needed throughout the day.

Perform a sensory diet regularly, the more a child is exposed to different sensory inputs the better able they are to process it successfully.

The key to a successful sensory diet is finding the activities that work for you and your child.

Make it fun! Performing a sensory diet should be an enjoyable part of your day. Incorporate sensory activities and games into your child’s regular play and get creative.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an Therapist. I am an adult who has ADHD, a parent to children who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and now a Grandma. The information on this website is not medical advice and does not replace the information that your child's therapists gives you. These are just ideas and information that I have learned myself over the years of being a parent and an adult living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. (ADHD) If you are concerned for your child, please always seek medical attention through a family doctor, pediatrician or therapist. This website is for informational purposes only. Each child is different and what works for one child may not for another. Please always consult with a professional.