Deep pressure can quickly help calm an anxious or overstimulated child without a lot of planning or equipment!
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What’s the first thing new moms and dads do when their newborn is crying and can’t be comforted? They wrap them up tight in a swaddle blanket!
Of course, there are a handful of other calming sensory strategies we use with babies too – rocking, shushing, bouncing, etc. But swaddling is a tried and true trick that many families use to calm their babies.
What’s the big deal with swaddling? Why does it work so well for so many kids? Two words…deep pressure.
Why is Deep Pressure Calming?
Many kids (and adults) find deep pressure input to be calming and relaxing. This is part of the reason that a massage feels so good when we’ve been stressed out. It’s why we see many kids who have difficulty with self-regulation and sensory processing respond positively to tools and activities that involve deep pressure (e.g. weighted blankets, squishes with a cushion or pillow, bear hugs).
Deep pressure has been found to impact the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of the nervous system that regulates breathing, heart rate, and many other functions of the body. This means that there are actual physiological effects of deep touch pressure. There are two divisions of the ANS – the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous systems (SNS and PSNS). The SNS is commonly characterized by the fight-or-flight response, and is the quick-responding part of the ANS. The PSNS is thought of as a dampening or inhibitory system.
Deep pressure is believed to provide tactile and proprioceptive input to the body that can modulate the activity of the PSNS and SNS, bringing the systems into more of a balanced response and state of arousal. Light touch is often perceived as alerting and even agitating to some people, while deep pressure touch is typically calming and organizing to the sensory systems.
Who Benefits From Deep Pressure?
While every child is different and has his or her own preferences, I consider deep pressure to be my go-to calming sensory strategy at home and at work. Whether I’m working with a child who is overstimulated and can’t sit still or I’m dealing with a tantrum with one of my own kids at home, the first thing I find myself doing is getting down to their level, taking their hands, and applying deep pressure as I talk quietly to them.
Deep pressure touch has been found to be an effective strategy for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, hyperactivity, sensory processing disorder, developmental disabilities, and other special needs.
It’s a simple little trick that occupational therapists can use that can have a calming effect on kids within minutes (or even seconds) and – at its most basic level – doesn’t require any equipment but your own two hands!
25 Deep Pressure Tools and Activities
Of course, the easiest way to provide deep pressure is to use your hands to massage or give “squeezes” to a child who needs some help regulating his body.
But there are many other ways to provide this type of calming sensory input. Here’s a list of calming deep pressure ideas that you can go back to again and again when you’re problem-solving sensory strategies for kids…
Be sure to download the handout and keep it in your file with all of your other sensory information! It’s the perfect way to share this information with teachers, parents, and others!
1 || Weighted blanket – Check out these blankets from Harkla – they’re super soft and provide a subtle amount of weight and pressure – perfect for calming little bodies!
3 || Weighted lap pad
17 || Double Squeezer or hug machine
20 || Make “blanket burritos” – roll the child up in a blanket to provide deep pressure!
21 || Couch cushion squishes or a couch cushion sandwich
22 || Massage
23 || Squeezes/bear hugs
24 || Rolling a therapy ball over the child’s body
25 || Swimming and water play
Other tactile and proprioceptive activities that can have a similar calming effect…
Crashing on a crash pad
Rolling on a gym mat
Deep pressure isn’t the answer for calming every single child because every child has his own unique sensory makeup. And deep pressure isn’t the only calming sensory strategy out there – far from it!
Other calming sensory ideas
Check out these calming sensory strategies for more ideas!
Be sure to take a peek at our DIY Calm Down Kit and these awesome ideas for Calm Kids on the Go: Sensory Strategies for Outings.
Check out this video about how deep pressure works for calming kids!