a group of babies

Interoception and Early Learners

Hi everyone, Kelly Mahler, occupational therapist. I’d like to take some time to talk about interoception and early learners. Think about those early years, birth to about five years old. That’s such a critical time in all of our lives for development. The same is true for interoception, or the development of the interoception sense.

Interoception and Early Learners: Comfort and Discomfort

Honestly, we know pretty little about the developmental trajectory of interoception, and there are a lot of brilliant scientists out there studying and seeking this understanding as we speak. One thing we do know is that the ‘explicit’ or conscious branch of our interoceptive system is developed enough at birth to play a vital role from day one of life. That conscious awareness of how our body feels is present. If you think about it from a practical standpoint, many infants are born into this world noticing comfort and discomfort within their body. That’s interoception, right?. For example, they might notice discomfort, and are wired to do something–maybe it’s cry or move their body in a certain way–to alert other people that their inner balance is off, it feels off, and needs attention.

We also know that as we experience the world from day one of life, our interoceptive system is continually responding. In some cases our body responds in a really comfortable way, and whatever we’re experiencing, whether it’s a person, a place, a toy or a situation, it’s making our body feel interoceptively comfortable. We also have an aversive, or uncomfortable, response to certain experiences. Whether that maybe a certain place, a certain person, a certain situation or event, it makes our body respond in an interoceptively uncomfortable way.

So, we’re learning about the world through our interoceptive sense, and we’re connecting with things that promote that internal comfort, but also learning what things create internal discomfort. Thus interoception, or that conscious awareness of our internal sensations, becomes an important factor or foundation in the development of self-regulation. We learn over time what things make our body feel comfortable, and we tend to seek more of that ‘good stuff’. We also learn what things make our body feel uncomfortable or downright painful, and we tend to avoid, or try to get away from, these experiences for safety and protection. Our bodies are wired to interoceptively respond to the world and act on that internal comfort and discomfort.

Interoception and Lived Experience

We also know that interoception is so vastly different for each one of us. What your body might feel like when you need food is probably different than what my body feels like when I need food. Or what your body feels like when you’re tired or sleepy might be different than what my body feels like when I’m tired or sleepy. We all have such unique inner experiences, and our interoceptive experience is shaped by our neurology, or how we are  naturally wired, but it’s also shaped by our lived experience.

My colleagues and I are working really hard at discovering the ideal strategies and approaches to use from day one of life to give us the best chance at nurturing a healthy and helpful interoceptive experience. So, let me tell you just a couple brief tips that we have. We have so many more, but this is hopefully enough to get you started.

3 Tips for Interoception and Early Learners

Tip 1: Interoception Talk 

Tip number one is using interoception talk, or body talk. If you’ve heard me discuss this topic before you might have heard this strategy. It’s one of our favorites. This strategy is when the caregivers talk out loud about the way their body is feeling during daily activities.

For example:

  • “Oh my goodness, my hands feel so warm when you hold it.”
  • “Oh, my skin feels so comfortable when you’re cuddling me.”
  • “My stomach is growling right now, whew, I must need some food.”

Just talking out loud about the way their body is feeling during daily activities, getting that interoception vocabulary out there, and really explicitly demonstrating that noticing the way our body feels is important. The child might be preverbal (e.g., not talking), but we know that early learners are soaking in so much of the language and experiences around them. Why not expose them to interoception modeling and vocabulary early on?

Tip 2: Body Curiosity

Gently, as the child grows, we shift that curiosity to the child. Our second strategy, or tip, is called body curiosity. This is really all about being curious and wondering about that early learner’s inner experience. We can do this even before they might be ready to respond.

One can say, for example:

  • “Oh, I notice that you’re crying, I wonder what’s going on.”
  • “I notice that you’re moving your body this way, I wonder what that means, I wonder what you’re feeling.”
  • “I see you reaching for more. I wonder how this makes you feel.”
  • “I wonder where you feel something in your body.”
  • “Do you feel something in your body?”

So, we’re using ‘I wonder’ statements. We’re getting curious without any expectation of response. We do not want to label. An example of labeling could be, “Oh, I see you moving your body like this, that means you have to go potty.” That’s labeling someone’s experience, and when we label someone’s experience, we are at high risk of being wrong. We often are wrong when we are trying to label someone else’s experience. So, we want to want to shift that to curiosity, be curious without an expectation of response. We are sending a message that their inner experience is worthy of attention and we are open to learning more about that experience.

Tip 3: Inner Validation

Finally, our third tip is all about inner validation. We want to think about the way we respond to early learners, and respond in a way that’s validating their inner experience. This is something that I’ve definitely made mistakes with as a parent (by the way– I still make lots of mistakes as a parent). For example, when my child would fall and they would scratch their knee and they’d have a little cut and they’d be crying. I would come from a loving place and say something like, “Oh, it’s fine. You’ll be fine. Brush it off, it’s no big deal,” instead of validating their inner experience in that moment.

They were crying, they were clearly feeling something, and I wish I would’ve just been a little bit more validating of their inner experience. I could’ve said, “Oh my goodness, I see you’re crying. I wonder what’s going on. Let me see. I see you’re holding your knee, let me check it out.” Instead, I was trying to do my best to ease the situation and tell them, “Oh, no big deal, just brush it off,” but that was really invalidating to their inner experience in that moment.

So, we’re really shifting and considering how we’re responding, and making sure we respond in a validating way. We want to show our early learners that it’s so important to listen to the way your body feels, and I am here with you trying my best to listen alongside of you.

Until next time.

Want to learn more about Interoception and Early Learners? Check out this on-demand course!

interoception and early learners