How to find your child’s sensory rhythm to help regulate their day

Rhythm is the foundation of our lives. Imagine a baby in the womb hearing the rhythmic “lub dub, lub dub” sound of their mother’s heartbeat—it’s soothing and comforting. When upset, an infant then calms by resting their head on their caregiver’s chest, hearing that familiar steady beat. Rhythm is naturally occurring within ourselves from our heartbeat, respiratory rate, feelings of hunger, and sleep cycle. We are also surrounded by rhythm in nature with the hours in a day, days of the week, months of the year, and seasons. It is only instinctual that our children crave a steady rhythm—it creates balance and provides a sense of security and predictability for children.

Rhythm gives children the freedom to feel confident, connected to their surroundings and comfortable to explore their environment to learn and play.

A daily rhythm is different from a schedule. It provides us with stability, but at the same time the flexibility to adapt and adjust to changes. As an occupational therapist, establishing a daily rhythm is one of the first things I help families create. A daily rhythm is a co-regulation tool (regulating alongside another person, modeling and assisting with regulation)—it enables us as parents to support, guide, and respond to our child’s needs, leading to development of self-regulation skills. Self-regulation is the ability to adjust, adapt, and organize your emotions and behaviors throughout the day.

Over the years, I began to see the benefits of a sensory rhythm versus a more structured sensory diet (sensory activities implemented throughout the day to assist with self-regulation). A daily sensory rhythm is based on a child’s sensory needs by organizing their daily activities to assist with self-regulation. Regardless of whether or not your child has sensory processing deficits, building a sensory rhythm will further enhance their well-being, ability to learn, and emotional awareness. 

Want to try it for yourself? Here’s how to support the right sensory rhythm for your family.

Track your day + observe your child

The first step to creating a daily sensory rhythm is to track your day. Write down your daily activities for 4-5 days so you can begin to see patterns. Circle any time of day where your child may be dysregulated (angry, scared, anxious, overly silly, having a meltdown, etc.), tired, or overly excited. Throughout the week, closely observe your child, taking note of their sensory preferences. Do they tend to gravitate to more movement activities? Do they learn well with tactile and kinesthetic activities? Are they more visual or auditory learners? 

Create anchor points in your day

Review your rhythm and mark the consistent points in your day throughout the week. These will become your “anchor points” and will remain the same every day throughout the week. These are often wake-up time, breakfast, snack time, lunch, reading time, rest time, self-care (be sure to include this), bedtime routine, etc. These anchor points will help to create consistency and connect your days together. 

Create breathing out points

These are activities in your day where your child can let their energy out! These will vary for every child and vary from day to day, but they could include movement activities, sensory-based activities, hikes, nature walks, music, or outside play. The activities can either be calming or alerting, depending on your child and their needs. Even homeschool lesson time can be a breathing out point if you include movement activities, heavy work, or gross motor skills. 

Create breathing in points

Breathing in points tend to be activities that require more focus, attention, and calmer movement patterns, such as slow swinging in a hammock, yoga, or rocking in a rocking chair while reading books. Again, this will vary for each child, but these can be seated homeschool lessons, meditation, story time, or handwork/hand crafts.

Build in natural connection times

Our children crave our attention. Building in natural connection times to our daily rhythm can be used as a co-regulation strategy. Natural connection times in our house are usually cuddle time in the morning, one-on-one lesson time, story time after lunch, dinner time and our bedtime routine. Of course, connection time can occur spontaneously throughout the day as well!

Weave your day together

Once you have identified all of these points throughout the day, begin to balance the day by alternating breathing out and breathing in points. (Don’t worry if it’s not exact—this is a rhythm, not a schedule!) Include your child’s sensory preferences within these activities, and think about what your child needs before a certain homeschool lesson. Do they need more calming activities (yoga, handwork, snuggling and reading books, etc.) prior to seated activities, or do they benefit from more movement-based activities, such as animal walks, swinging, climbing a tree or doing an obstacle course?

Do they benefit from tactile activities such as a sensory bin or manipulating playdough? Would they benefit from heavy work activities, or resistive pushing and pulling activities such as yard work, pushing a basket, building a fort with wood, or pushing a sibling in a wagon? Think about what they need before and after a lesson and what activities you can add in the day if continued dysregulation is occurring. Most importantly, think about what they would benefit from during a lesson to enhance their learning. Would they benefit from more kinesthetic activities, classical music, tactile activities, or more movement during a lesson? Add those things!

Remember: A rhythm is flexible—it will change from day to day, but your anchor points can remain the same. If you have an idea of what times of day breathing out activities are beneficial and breathing in points are beneficial, then you can create consistency and balance. Remember to be responsive to your child’s needs throughout the day—be a sensory detective and provide more calming or alerting activities depending on what they are communicating to you through their words, body language, facial expressions, and behavior.

Click here for a sample sensory rhythm that can help you get started!

And the most important point of all to remember: In order for a child to self-regulate, we first must co-regulate!

Kristin Palen, Pediatric OT
Kristin Palen, Pediatric OT

Kristin is a pediatric occupational therapist with over 18 years of experience, as well as a homeschool mom. Kristin has solely worked in pediatrics in almost every setting possible, spanning from a sensory integration clinic, a school setting, early intervention, home-based, and a pediatric rehabilitation hospital. Kristin’s areas of interest and specialty are sensory integration, nature-based occupational therapy, and responsive feeding therapy.

Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.

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