Sticky, salty and sandy summer: 6 tips for your sensory sensitive child to enjoy the beach

From the team at Early Start Australia Ashmore and Coomera QLD

Summer is a wonderful time of year– pack away the iPads and pull out the shovels and swimmers!

But for many children with sensory processing differences, they 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, this is an article we 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 six tips that will help the family as a whole still get to the beach:

  1. 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 their 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.
  2. Minimise discomfort – If your child absolutely cannot stand sunscreen, minimise the amount needed with a long sleeved rashy 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 it into their face.  If your child hates the feeling of sunscreen dripping into their eyes when swimming, use zinc that doesn’t run instead of regular sunscreen. If your child hates the feeling of salty water in the eyes, consider having them wear a snorkel mask or goggles. If your child is sensitive to light, bring a beach umbrella, hat and sunglasses.
  3. One thing at a time – Apply sunscreen at home or in the car park before your child dips their toes into the sand. Let your child get comfortable in the sand before suggesting a swim. Encourage your child to go at their own pace. Don’t pressure your child if they don’t want to try something. For example, if they don’t want to dig in the sand, just give them some time. After they watch you digging and building an amazing sandcastle, they may actually join in on their own.
  4. 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 their 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 to the beach may only last half an hour, but by the end of summer (with luck) you may be soaking up the sun for several hours.
  5. If at first, you don’t succeed… keep on trying – Try a wide range of summer products too. Try spray sunscreen instead of sunscreen lotion and encourage your child to choose which type they like best (or which type they hate 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 they will wear. By using choice and experimenting with what works best for your unique child, you will be the expert in summertime success.
  6. 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. Just don’t forget to pack wet wipes for those sticky hands!
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