We’ve all been there or seen it: the wailing 3 year old who has thrown themselves down on the ground in the aisle at Target because mom said no to buying another Paw Patrol toy. No one wants to be in that position, but it happens to the best of us!
Tantrums are not uncommon at this age. In fact, they’re expected because toddlers are just testing their limits to learn the rules of the world.
At this young age (especially 1 or 2 year olds), they have a hard time communicating their wants and needs. You might see more of these behaviors when your child is overtired or overstimulated and doesn’t know how to tell you what they’re feeling.
Times like this is where they would really benefit from calming sensory activities to tone down their energy, excitement, or frustration. It’s up to you to give them the tools to help their bodies feel better.
As adults, we all have things we do to satisfy our sensory system and help us to calm, stay alert, or fall asleep. For example, some adults may doodle on paper during a business meeting, rub their hands together when they’re nervous, or shake their leg when they’re tired to help them fall asleep. I personally always play with my pen or pen cap to pay attention.
Children’s little bodies need this sensory input too, they just don’t know what or how to get it yet.
What is overstimulation?
Overstimulation occurs when a person is consumed by more sensations, noise, activity, and experiences than their body can handle. A child who is experiencing this can feel overwhelmed and may act out in various ways.
For example, your toddler might have a tantrum after a big event like a birthday party because of the loud music, bright lights, screaming children, colorful decorations, balloons, clowns, farm animals, etc. There could have been a number of things that set them off or just one.
You may notice your child becoming overstimulated if you see any of these signs. Although they can be signs of other issues, you’ll need to examine the situation of what your child has been doing to determine if the cause is overstimulation.
- Irritability, crankiness, or opposition/defiance
- Impulsivity or aggressiveness toward others or herself (self-injurious behaviors such as head banging, excessively scratching, etc)
- Shouting or making loud noises
- Overly emotional or sensitive reactions such as crying, whining, or just falling apart
- Inability or refusal to sleep or eat
- Shutting down or refusal to participate
- Hyperactivity, overexcitement, or “bouncing off the walls”, running/jumping at inappropriate times
- Physical symptoms like rubbing the face, eyes, or ears
When this happens, they may need quiet time, a familiar environment, or calming activities.
You may notice that your child can have melt downs or hyperactive episodes for a number of reasons. Usually the triggers are lack of sleep, hunger, disrupted routine, or overstimulation.
Stick to a daily routine
The consistency of a schedule or routine gives toddlers an advantage of always knowing what to expect and what is expected of them. Try to keep their schedules as predictable as possible.
When they are familiar with a routine and it gets altered, it can throw them completely out of whack. A predictable schedule will let them know when they will eat, sleep, and play and what activities will be coming up so they can prepare to relax or get excited.
Incorporate physical activities through out the day
You can also form this routine around activities that you know may be calming for them. If there are things that your child has to do that you know are overstimulating and you can not take them out of their schedule (i.e. a birthday party), you can plan a calm down activity right before or after it.
Your child may need to release all that energy they have. Especially during cold weather months where you can’t take them outside to play, make sure you are adding in activities that will get them moving thorough out the day.
It can get help them to sleep better, as well. Both calming and stimulating activities should be added in when possible (like the ones listed below).
Anticipate tough situations
Once you understand what situations are overly stimulating for your child, you can attempt to prevent the melt downs by keeping them out of the situation that sets them off.
Again, once you know what a bad situation looks like for your toddler, you can be ready before the tantrums happen. If there are certain situations you can’t avoid, for example long car rides, bring one of their favorite calming activities along with you. If they haven’t had their nap and you know the car ride will be a disaster, skip it if you can.
Calming Sensory Activities
Below are some sensory activities that you can try to calm down your toddler. These should help if your child seems to be overstimulated, to prepare him for an overly arousing situation, or to calm down and get ready for bed.
You can incorporate a few of these activities at once or maybe just one at a time to see what works best. Every child will respond differently to all of these activities so it may be trial and error to see what’s most helpful for your toddler.
It could take several tries before an activity is effective in calming them down. If it doesn’t seem to work at first, give it another try before you completely abandon the idea.
It just may take your toddler a few attempts to get used to it and realize how soothing it really is to them.
Related post: How to Teach your Toddler Good Habits Early On
1. Lotion massage
Use lotion to firmly massage your child’s arms, hands, legs, feet, and back. Stroke one limb at a time and give firm, deep pressure. You can even gently massage their face and head if they like it.
We use Burt’s Bee’s Fragrance Free Moisturizing Lotion and it works great. I love that it’s all natural and doesn’t contain most toxic chemicals found in other products.
2. Soft music
Lullabies, soft music, white noise, or nature sounds can be very soothing. Play soft tunes for your child at any point during the day, but typically before naps, bed times, or when you’re trying to calm them down. It may even be helpful to play it while they’re trying to focus on an activity or task.
I have some favorite Spotify playlists we use like Baby Sleep or Sleep, Baby Sleep which get my daughter so drowsy when I need her to take a nap. Also, Try Amazon Music Unlimited Free Trial which has an array of albums and playlists like Baby Lullaby and Baby Music.
Amazon Music and Spotify have also been lifesavers in the car or stroller when my toddler is antsy to get out of her seat. Putting on soft music on-the-go always helps.
3. Create a soft, calming area
You can create a small area or nook in your home that provides a quiet, calm down space for your toddler. If you have a small tent (like this castle one) or tee-pee (this is the one I used to make my daughter’s calm space) that should work great.
Throw some soft pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals in there to make it a cozy, restful spot. You can also put anything that you found helps your child calm down.
For example, a squeeze ball, social story, or sensory bottle (which I’ll talk more about below).
The goal would be that they can go to their spot independently and relax while they become less stimulated again. Also, you could keep an iPod in the calm area so they can turn on soft music independently (but not a tablet that could be overly stimulating).
Find out what best suits your child and work from there.
If your child loves deep pressure massages, they may also love getting their body squished with a bean bag. If you have a large bean bag, like this one, simply roll it over their body (back and front).
They should like the weight and calming feeling it provides. You can also use a medium/large sized therapy ball to roll over them, as well.
Warm water typically makes us drowsy and relaxed. Don’t put too many stimulating toys in there with them if that’s a cause of overstimulation. You may just want to use some bubbles or bath colors so they can sit and relax. Also, diffusing lavender essential oils during bath time are a nice addition while it’s steamy and warm in the bathroom.
Many parents incorporate a warm bath as part of the bedtime routine. If your child typically needs to wind down after the day in order to fall asleep, you can use it right before bed. If they don’t fall asleep well for naps, you can always give them a bath in the early afternoon.
5. Wrap them tightly in a blanket
When our little ones were young, we would swaddle them tightly. Then we had to stop once they could roll over. However, most children still seek out or need that tight snug feeling around them which we never give them back after their swaddled.
Try taking a large blanket and rolling them up in it tightly, making sure their head is out. You can hold or cradle them while they’re in the blanket or just let them rest on the couch or floor like that.
As you’ve probably been hearing lately, these weighted blankets are very popular among both kids and adults as a mode of relaxation.
However, this isn’t a new trend in the sensory and OT community. We’ve been using these weighted blankets and vests for years on children with sensory processing difficulties.
Just drape the blanket over your child when they’re feeling hyperactive or overstimulated and watch them surrender to relaxation. The 4lb blanket is just enough weight for your toddler! They are a really big help getting kids to calm down.
7. Lovie or stuffed animal
Children feel safe and comforted when holding their favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or lovie. Make sure they have access to these items when they could possibly need it. We usually keep my daughter’s favorite stuffed animal in her crib, but there are others that are similar throughout our house for when she wants them.
8. Foam roller
Similar to the ben bag squishes, your toddler may find the deep, firm pressure of a foam roller to be calming. Try laying them down on their belly and back and gently, but firmly rolling the foam roller over their body. Ask where they like to feel the pressure best. Is it their legs, upper, or lower back?
9. Sensory bottles
These sensory bottles are so easy to make and toddlers love them. They’re filled with glitter, water, a little bit of glue, and any other small gadgets you’d like.
Shake them up and watch your toddler’s eyes stay glued to watch what happens! They’ll enjoy the glitter and objects slowly float around the bottle.
If you don’t want to spend the time making it, you can purchase these sensory bottles here. Also, here is a great tutorial and examples of how to make your own sensory bottles.
10. Sensory bins
Toddlers love sensory bins! You can fill a container with all different types of items and let your child run her hands and fingers through it.
All you need to do is use one type of filler (rice, sand, rocks, paper strips, beads, shaving cream, yogurt, etc.) and other small items for them to fish out. Little Bins for Little Hands has a ton of sensory bin ideas that your little one will love.
11. Essential oils
Essential oils are so popular right now for inducing a calm and relaxing state (as well as other health benefits). Use a diffuser (like this one) to have the scents dispersed well through the air in your child’s room or near their calm space.
Peppermint and eucalyptus are not considered safe (even diffused) around toddlers. Lavender and sweet orange/mandarin are safe and the best scents for calming young children used through a diffuser or inhaled.
12. Rock slowly over a ball
The slow rocking over a medium-large therapy ball may feel calming to your child. Have them lay on their stomach on the ball as you hold them firmly and rock the ball back and forth.
Waterbeads start out as small, hard beads and turn into these jelly-like, slimy, squishy balls. Just throw them into a medium sized tub, cover with water, and watch them expand! They’re so neat to dip your hands into.
Throw in a few small toys or manipulatives for your child to ‘hunt for’ and you’ve got a calming activity that should keep your child busy for a little while.
14. Squeeze a stress ball or sensory toy
Stress balls can help to calm a child who is overly excited. This multi-pack of stress balls contains all different types of squishy balls and sensory toys for your toddler’s enjoyment.
It’s also super easy to make your own stress balls! You can have your kids join in on this activity too. All you need are balloons and flour. Check out Natural Beach Living for a how-to on Making Fun Stress Balls for Kids.
15. Dim lighting
Bright artificial lighting can be so overstimulating for a child. When you give them time to calm down, whether it be in their quiet corner or crib, make sure you keep the lights low.
16. Social story
Social stories are short books that your child can read to themselves. They are written from the child’s perspective and offer them reminders or tips on appropriate social behaviors. For example, staying calm and following rules. You can also write your own social stories unique to your own child’s needs.
17. Blow bubbles
If your toddler loves bubbles and isn’t overstimulated by them, use this as a calming activity. This Bubble Machine is great for this as they can easily create thousands of bubbles for their enjoyment without the skill of blowing them.
18. Use the crib
A crib doesn’t have to just be used for sleep. It may be a calming, quiet space for your child.
We can just put our 18 month old in her crib with a blanket, pillow, and a stuffed animal and she could spend an hour in there even without sleeping. It always seems to quiet her down and give her some alone, relaxation time.
Jumping on a trampoline is a sensory activity that could either calm or overstimulate your child so try it with caution. For some children, their body seeks out those feelings of high energy and exhilaration.
They may need the jumping to get all their energy out and feel good again. On the other hand, it could also make them more hyperactive. Try this trampoline if you think your toddler would be interested.
20. Yoga poses
We all know that yoga is very relaxing for adults. It can be just as calming for children. You can start teaching your toddlers some yoga poses that they can imitate very early on. Kids Yoga Stories is an excellent free resource for teaching your young child all about yoga!
This is a specific brush made for children with some sensory processing difficulties. The soft, delicate bristles get brushed along your child’s skin (arms, legs, and back) and it can produce a very relaxed, calming feeling for them. Here is a short video on how to do the brushing technique correctly.