Grooming routines, like haircuts and nail trimming, can be a “sensory challenge” for our kids, often resulting in push back, power struggles, meltdowns or flat out refusal. From experience, I have noticed kids feeling overwhelmed and stressed with grooming and hygiene routines. Parents and kids have expressed discomfort, frustrations, and rigidity. If you want to learn more about the sensory demands of grooming activities and why they can be hard for our kids, read our article Here: Sensory Friendly Grooming.
But by knowing that many activities of daily living can be extremely taxing, and even overwhelming, for our kids allows us to prepare and proactively implement strategies to promote a more successful experience for everyone involved.
To help promote a more successful experience with these activities, consider implementing the following sensory-based strategies:
- Auditory (sound): As we go about our day, there are so many sounds going on around us – many that we – as functioning adults – may not even ‘hear’ or pay attention to. But a child who is sensitive to sound can be easily overwhelmed or may have a hard time determining where that sound comes from. For hair cutting, kids may be overwhelmed with the loud blow dryer sounds or the deep buzzing vibration. With nails, the clip noise or the nail file noise might be triggering. Try these strategies:
- Play calming music
- Wear headphones
- Sing songs to cancel out the unwanted noise
- Tactile (touch): Our skin receptors are very sensitive and tell us so much information about the world around us. But for our sensory kids, sometimes touch might actually be perceived differently – as painful or overwhelming. For hair cutting, the falling hairs can be startling in their eyes or on their shoulders or neck. The comb could pull the scalp and hurt if hair gets stuck. Maybe the clippers could be too cold. And for nails, the clippers could be cold on our finger tips or the file might be too rough. If your kid might be sensitive to tactile imput, try these strategies:
- Offer swim goggles so that eyes are not tickled by falling hairs
- Have your kid pick out a costume or a cape to keep hairs off their skin and clothing
- Try cutting their hair while it is wet in the bathtub, this way the weighted down wet hair won’t tickle as much
- Clippers and scissors can be cold because of the metal, so consider using a comb
- Nail Clippers can be cold, try using a filing board may be better for your child
- Fiberglass nail files have a ‘smoother feel’ than traditional files
- Proprioceptive (feedback to muscles and joints): Proprioceptive input is feedback to your muscles and joints that can be organizing and calming. Ever remember a time when you felt upset or overwhelmed and someone you love gives you a big bear hug and you immediately feel calmer – that is proprioceptive input. This type of input can be really helpful to keep your kids calm and organized during these overwhelming activities. To provide more proprioceptive and deep pressure touch input, try these strategies:
- Wear lycra/spandex – shirts, pants, or body socks!
- Sit in your lap and give squeezes on legs, shoulder and body throughout
- Sit on a wiggle disc or partially deflated beach ball
- Place a pillow behind their back
- Use a weighted lap pad
- Give them (and you) comfort as they are strapped into their seat.
- Vestibular (head position and movement): Vestibular refers to our head position in space and helps us understand movement. Some kids seek a lot of movement to get their body ready to listen, learn or do something challenging. Whereas other kids might avoid movement because it makes them feel overwhelmed.
- Some kids feel uneasy with their head out of midline positioning. Instead of tilting their heads back for a rinse, consider using a spray bottle, wash cloth, or cup to wash away soap suds
- For kids that like to move, try doing animal walks, relay races, yoga and other movement activities to get the body ready before the frooming activity
- Oral: Using our mouth and oral input can be a great way to help our bodies stay calm and organized. Try these strategies:
- Suck or chew on something – whether it is gummy bears, gum, a water bottle (with straw) or an oral motor tool or a straw – get that jaw moving
- Try crunchy foods. Usually, we think of the hair salon lollipops, but mints, crunchy snacks and big flavors
- Vision (sight): We take in so much information about the environment with our eyes. Sometimes kids may be more comforted if they can see what is going on. On the other hand, some kids may do better if they are distracted and not hyper focusing on what is going on. Figure out what works best for your child and try these strategies:
- Let your kids hold a mirror to watch or do the whole activity in front of a mirror
- If watching increases the difficulty, allow these kids to watch a show or play a game during the activity
- Smell (olfactory): Have you ever walked into Yankee Candle and after a few minutes you are overwhelmed with all the different smells and feel like you need some fresh air? Your sense of smell is in overload! For our sensory kids, their body can get to that place of ‘overload’ with just a single smell. Some soaps may have too strong of a scent, or maybe they just give off a scent that is unfavorable. Try these strategies to help:
- Use unscented soaps
- Use a scent you know your child likes or is familiar with – like citrus or bubble gum
- Let your child smell the soaps first, in a different environment, so they get familiar with the smell (and make sure they have a positive response then before using it with grooming!)
Here are some additional resources including sensory friendly clippers, social stories and kid friendly videos, and books for parents.
- Amazon razor combs:
- Daniel Tiger Gets a Haircut video episode DANIEL TIGER’S NEIGHBORHOOD | Nana Cuts
Daniel’s Hair | PBS KIDS
- Harry gets a Haircut by Pam Iano
- Listening to my Body book by Gabi Garcia
- The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson
Each child is unique. They have their own preferences and challenges – so it is important to make a plan and build a routine that is unique to your child’s needs. Some kids may benefit from just a slight change in one of these areas, where as another kid may benefit from implementing as many strategies as possible. And remember, it is a process – take time to slowly incorporate strategies and build positive experiences for your kids whenever possible. Progress is progress, no matter how small.
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Hi, I am an occupational therapist at South Shore Therapies. I love working with children through a family-centered care approach. It is a passion of mine to help families problem solve life’s daily challenges, big and small. Our mission with SST’s social media platform is to empower, educate and inspire families to take on life’s challenges while promoting an optimistic outlook and a brighter future.