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Ask An OT: How to desensitize a child’s skin…


Ask Miss Jaime OT!

~from Theresa Allender in Seattle, Washington:

How to  Desensitize Skin…

“My four year old has a super sensitive body. She is uncomfortable with kisses and hugs, she will only wear certain clothes because of how they feel, she is the same about shoes, it’s uncomfortable for her to have her head washed, etc. I was wondering if I could desensitize her to make her more comfortable in her skin.

Also, is this hypersensitive body related to her inability to hear others around her sometimes? For example it seems like she is blocking people out on purpose but she is genuinely startled to be tapped on the shoulder or yelled at for not responding.”


Thanks for writing in Theresa!  It sounds like your daughter has tactile and auditory hypersensitivity.  Sensory processing difficulties are very difficult to pinpoint without an assessment.  Even with an assessment, many children’s sensory issues change from morning to night, day to day, or season to season. What bothers them one day may not bother them the next.  Your daughter sounds pretty consistent, which may be helpful in figuring out how to help her.   In terms of “desensitizing” her, you could try massage.  A friend of mine is a Massage Therapist and she happens to work with children.  She says that gentle massage every night after a bath would really help the desensitization process.    You know what your daughter can tolerate, but start slow and gentle with some lotion.  She said that one very important thing is to decrease the time significantly for a child.  Start with five to ten minutes if she can tolerate it and then try to increase it.  But even 20 to 30 minutes total is a great accomplishment and will help to start the desensitization process.  You could try some lavender or pleasant smelling lotion if you think she would like it. If not, go plain.  If you already do this, systematically make your massage a little longer.  Then you can try pressing more firmly, etc.  If she has very sensitive spots, avoid them.  After you brush her hair, you could gently massage her scalp while you talk to her.   If the massage becomes ok, you can “step it up” by using a soft washcloth for the massage, or follow up the lotion with a “drying” massage with a towel or soft cloth.

Pediatric massage can help improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and improve aversion to touch.  It’s also great for improving the parent/child bond.

As for the second part of your question, children who are hypersensitive to auditory stimuli may appear not to hear you because they don’t hear you.  Children who have auditory hypersensitivity will hear every little thing around them, which may limit them from hearing something closer.  Leaves blowing outside, the sirens blowing two blocks away, or the hum of the air conditioner are competing with the voice of Mom.  All of these background noises can be hard for a child with auditory hypersensitivity to “tune out”.  This means that these background noises may be equal or more pronounced than closer noises like mom calling her name.   So it makes it hard for her to respond at times.  Often children learn how to self-modulate so that they can “tune out” the background stuff.  If it’s really impacting her, you could consider a “Therapeutic Listening” program.   You would need to find a therapist who is certified in it, but it seems pretty cool.  Check out this link for more info:


or you could look at this You Tube Video to get an idea of what it’s all about:


Thanks for taking the time to “Ask an OT”!  If my readers have any other advice for Theresa & her beautiful daughter Maya, please comment!

Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks for stopping by!

~  Miss Jaime, OT

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4 thoughts on “Ask An OT: How to desensitize a child’s skin…

  1. Theresa allender says:

    Thank you so much Jaime! I will try all of your suggestions and I actually know someone who does the listening program. I have heard amazing things about it. Thanks again!

  2. denise says:

    I am hoping for a bit of guidance. At the age of 3 my son was diagnosed with sensory issues. By 5 ADHD combined, bad enough to need medication. By 6 ODD and slight OCD were added. He is 10 now and the consistent problem is sunscreen. Since he was a baby he hated having lotion put on. I can live without the lotion, but sunscreen is a necessity. Even at 10 it is a battle every time. He has complete meltdowns, sometimes even in public (which normally he is self conscious about. I have tried lotions, various sprays and sticks. I have let him put it on himself. Nothing stops the crying, screaming and running away. Any assistance would be very helpful and appreciated.

    • Jaime S says:

      Hi Denise! Thanks for reading! This is a tough question. It sounds like he is extremely tactile defensive. Does he get OT services? It is hard to give suggestions without knowing him but my instincts would say that he has definite sensory issues and should go for OT to try to desensitize his skin. I wish I had a magic answer on this one but you are right, Sunscreen is a necessity! I would ask your pediatrician for a referral for OT and also touch base with your dermatologist to see if they have any suggestions. He may need a brushing protocol to work on that defensiveness, but an OT who knows him and has worked with him would be a better judge. I hope that helps!

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