A sensory brush is used as part of the Wilbarger protocol, something that an occupational therapist, trained in sensory integration techniques, may prescribe as part of a home program for a client. The technique is called “brushing” only because of the tool that is used; but it’s not with your typical hairbrush. A sensory brush looks like a surgical scrub brush, or a brush used to remove corn silk from a corncob.
A sensory brush or brushing program is often indicated for pediatric clients that have sensory dysfunction such as tactile sensitivity, hyperactivity, or general sensory dysregulation. For information on Sensory Processing Disorder, check out our article here. It can help patients who engage in unsafe or undesired behaviors, or are sensory seeking. Brushing can help children who are slow-to-start, or overly cautious, and those that are picky eaters. Pediatric clients may benefit from brushing if they struggle with poor motor coordination or balance issues.
Brushing is used to improve focus, the ability to handle new situations, increase self-awareness, self-organization and self-control. It can increase a child’s ability to optimize their arousal and activity levels as well as decrease sensory defensiveness. The Wilbarger brushing protocol involves the sensory brush, paired with joint compressions, completed in a sequence and according to a schedule. It can be done at school and home, and should be carried out as part of a routine, several times per day.
The technique is a deep-pressure input applied to the skin, firmly - so it does not scratch, itch or tickle. By rubbing the brush across the skin, the pressure input targets touch receptors and helps a child organize his/her central nervous system. This can calm down any over-active receptors that are mis-firing and help bring a child’s level of alertness to a normal (calm) level.
Brushing is a good way to establish a sensory diet routine, and add to preparatory activity. For example, if a child has a difficult time tolerating a busy environment like a birthday party or holiday gathering, brushing can be used to ‘prepare’ the child’s nervous system to enter that situation, by aiding regulation. At bedtime, brushing can be used as part of a wind-down routine to signal the brain and body to get ready to sleep. A warm cup of milk, a short yoga sequence, brushing and a bedtime story can prepare all the sensory systems for rest.
Another perfect place for brushing is in bonding between parent and child. Brushing can be similar to infant massage in principle, as it is done with a trusted caregiver and helps target the proprioceptive system and calm the tactile (touch) system. Brushing should be a desired activity for the child, and enjoyed by both participants. A song or quick story can add to the routine, and a bear hug or snuggle at the end can make the experience special and help the child look forward to the routine.
If you have had success with using a sensory brush with your child, we'd love to hear about it!
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