Hidden Senses: Interoception Helps Us Understand What's Going on Inside Our Bodies

Kimberly Lindgren, OTR/L - October 23, 2020

Interoception is another one of our ‘hidden’ sensory systems. It’s the ability to identify and understand internal body cues, which help us take action and solve the sensory problem. For example, shivering and goosebumps means we are cold and that we need to get a jacket. A heavy and tight stomach means we are full and should stop eating. A fluttery stomach, tight muscles, increased heart rate, and shallow breathing means we are feeling nervous or anxious. Other common internal body cues include feeling sick, hurt, hot, and needing to go to the bathroom.

Emotions and interoception go hand in hand. If a child is unable to recognize a basic need and internal body sensations (like feeling hungry), they will not know to get or ask for food. Of course they would eventually get upset! And on the outside, this may seem like unwarranted emotions, when really the root of the problem is a sensory-interoception challenge.

Still not sure if your child needs more support with their internal body cues? Below are some common warning signs of possible interoception concerns:

  • Peeing and pooping: Not knowing when they need to go to the bathroom, if they are finished, and/or only sense the need to go to the bathroom at the very last second and then sprint to the bathroom. 
  • Feeding: Difficulty telling you or eating/drinking when they are hungry/thirsty, difficulty stopping eating when they are full 
  • Temperature: Difficulty identifying when they are hot or cold 
  • Feelings: Difficulty identifying when they are tired, nervous 
  • Hurt/sick: Lots of bumps/bruises without realizing it, difficulty understanding when they are sick (very common for most children to not interpret the body cues of feeling sick) 

Some simple activities at home can help your child bring awareness to what their body is telling them. Try incorporating these into your daily routine at home: 

  • Help your child learn adjectives to describe certain internal feelings. For instance, before a meal identify how your stomach feels. Besides empty, you might say grumbling, tired muscles, headache, dry mouth.  
  • At the end of the day, do a body scan while lying in bed. Discuss together about how your body, muscles, brain, eyes, etc. feels.  

Helping a child develop mindfulness about their body is no easy feat. Occupational Therapists (that’s us!) are trained in helping your child recognize these internal cues. For more information, you can contact us or refer to the OT specialist, Kelly Mahler, who is leading the research in this field. We love her parent-friendly, yet informative book, Interoception: The Eighth Sensory System, that includes wonderful interoception activities.  

Happy Body Mindfulness to you and your little ones!