Summer is a wonderful time of year– pack away the ipads and pull out the shovels and swimmers! But many children with sensory processing differences cringe at the thought of putting on sunscreen or swimming at the beach. Many children with sensory processing differences are hypersensitive to touch, often referred to as tactile sensitivity or tactile defensiveness. Children who are hypersensitive to touch have a sensory processing difference that causes the brain to perceive this tactile input to the skin as extremely irritating, or even painful.  For more on how the tactile system works and what causes tactile sensitivity, check out the article we recently wrote on “Sensitivity to Clothes and Tactile Sensitivity”.

Sunscreen is cold, sand is itchy, and saltwater is sticky. These summertime sensations may be only mildly uncomfortable for most people, but for children with tactile sensitivity, these feelings are so uncomfortable that they cry or hide when siblings suggest a trip  to the beach.

So what can a parent do? Here are 6 tips that we hope will help you still get out to the beach.

  • Movement and deep pressure. Light, ticklish touch while sitting down is often what is most uncomfortable for children. Firm touch (deep pressure), exercise (proprioception), and movement (vestibular input) are the types of sensory input that ‘override’ those uncomfortable tactile sensations in the brain. Before applying sunscreen, give your child a whole body squeeze inside her beach towel. Have a ‘wiggle break’ in the middle of a sunscreen-applying session. After arriving at the beach, play tag or do some running and jumping. Swinging and spinning in the water may be so much fun that suddenly the splashing is alright.
  • Minimize discomfort. If your child absolutely cannot stand sunscreen, minimize the amount needed with a rash shirt, some longer-length swimming shorts, and a bucket hat. Apply sunscreen to the face in front of a mirror so that your child can see what you are doing while you are rubbing her face.  If your child hates the feeling of sunscreen dripping into his eyes when swimming, use zinc that doesn’t run instead of regular sunscreen. If your child hates the feeling of salty water in her eyes, consider having her wear a snorkel mask or goggles in the water. If your child is sensitive to light, bring a beach umbrella, hat, and some sunglasses.
  • One thing at a time. Apply sunscreen at home or in the car park, before your child dips her toes into the sand. Let your child get comfortable in the sand before suggesting a swim. Encourage your child to go at her own pace. Don’t pressure your child if he doesn’t want to try something. For example, if he doesn’t want to dig in the sand, just give him some time. After he watches you digging and building an amazing sand castle, he may actually join in on his own.
  • Expect challenges and plan for them. Keep spare clean towels in the car, and bring a favourite toy. Bring an esky with ice water and a favourite snack. Bring an extra large towel or blanket to sit or lay on. After going for a dip in the water, your child may immediately want to go home because now the sand is sticking to his wet skin. If you planned to stay longer, help your child work through this experience. Go to the beach showers for a quick rinse of the salt water, and have a fresh clean towel (without sand on it) ready for drying off before trying to venture back into the sand. It may help to have a favourite toy to help ease the process. The first trip of the summer to the beach may only last half an hour, but by the end of summer you may be soaking up the sun for several hours.
  • If at first you don’t succeed… keep on trying! And try a wide range of summer products too. Try spray sunscreen instead of sunscreen lotion, and encourage your child to choose which type he likes best (or which type he hates least). Try water shoes, velcro sandals, or old sneakers if your child does not like being barefoot on the hot sand.  Let your child choose what swimmers she will wear. By using choice and experimenting with what works best for your unique child, you will be the expert in summertime success.
  • End it with some fun! Celebrate a trip to the beach (even an unhappy one) by finishing the trip with something your child enjoys. Have a family singalong to a favourite song on the way home, or go out for ice cream after the trip to the beach. Just don’t forget to pack wet wipes for those sticky hands!

For more on summertime sensations, check out our recent article titled Heat, Sweat and Stickiness: Sensory Tips for Summertime and keep and eye out for our upcoming articles on swimming lessons.


Next Steps

We hope these strategies help with managing the beach this summer but if you decide you would like to look further into the sensory needs of your child or if you would like to find out more about what can be done to help feel free to make contact.

To see what times one of our OT’s would be available to talk you can view our locations and availability or if you would prefer to talk to us on the phone you can call us on (07) 5578 2000.