What are the Benefits of a Sensory Brush or The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol?

by Molly Shaw Wilson MS OTR/L BCP January 03, 2018 15 Comments

Sensory Brush Benefits blog post

A sensory brush, or therapy brush, is used as part of the Wilbarger brushing protocol, something that an occupational therapist, trained in sensory integration techniques, may prescribe as part of a home sensory program for your child. 

The technique is called “brushing” only because of the tool that is used, but it’s not with your typical hairbrush.

What Is a Sensory Brush? 

A sensory brush looks like a surgical scrub brush, or a brush used to remove corn silk from a corncob.

wilbarger brushing protocol brush

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.

What Are the Benefits of Sensory Brushing? 

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.  

Some of the benefits of using sensory brushing are that it improves:

  • focus
  • the ability to handle new situations
  • self-awareness
  • self-organization
  • 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 healthy sensory diet, several times per day.

What Are The Wilbarger Brushing Protocol Instructions? 

wilbarger brushing protocol instructions

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 misfiring and help bring a child’s level of alertness to a normal (calm) level.

When is The Best Time to Use Sensory Brushing?

Brushing is a good way to establish a sensory diet routine and add a 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.

Read more about improving sleep for those with sensory processing disorder here

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!


Molly Shaw Wilson MS OTR/L BCP
Molly Shaw Wilson MS OTR/L BCP

Molly Shaw Wilson MS OTR/L BCP is a board-certified pediatric occupational therapist with 16 years experience. She owns a private practice and provides service in homes, community and school settings, as well as her outpatient sensory clinic.

Molly enjoys working with young children and their families, focusing on parent-child interactions and home routines. She is a regular contributor to a parenting blog about typical development. Her professional interests have stemmed from her certificate work in assistive technology, hippotherapy practice, and consultation to a nature-based program in New Hampshire.

To find out more about Molly, please visit her website at www.trainingwheelsnh.com


15 Responses

Donna
Donna

May 09, 2024

Hello! Is it possible to perform therapeutic brushing without an OT degree? My son suffers from severe sensory processing difficulties as a result of level 3 autism and ADHD. I am interested in purchasing the sensory brush, but I am hesitant to do the brushing myself. Is there a program I can join to get certified for this? We are from rural South Dakota, and resources are scarce here. We have to do what we have to do. Please advise.

Sienna
Sienna

May 09, 2024

Hello. I am totally blind, autistic and have complex PTSD.
I have a couple questions. Do you think the brushing could help relieve symptoms of my CPTSD? I do music therapy and talk therapy, and unfortunately they have no experience with the brushing technique. And I don’t have an occupational therapist.
Also, am I allowed to use the sensory brushes as a way of tactile stimming and fidgeting? I just love how soft the brushes feel to the touch, and I’m a sensory seeker and I love to either brush my arms and hands, or I love it when someone just brushes me even if I’m not dysregulated.

Amy
Amy

August 17, 2023

Hello! I’ve been trained in the brushing protocol and was told to always follow up brushing with joint compressions. Just curious, what’s the reasoning behind not being able to just do the brushing by itself? Thanks!

Fiona
Fiona

August 18, 2022

What can you recommend for a two month old infant that has uncontrolled crying episodes, lasting sometimes for 4 hours, that may be due to sensory processing disorder?

Nicole Przychodzen
Nicole Przychodzen

April 29, 2021

Hi Cathie,
Thank you for reading our blog! That’s a really good question. We recommend reaching out to an OT who works with stroke patients. It’s very likely that sensory brushing could have benefits. Also, there is a good article about sensory brushing for stroke patients found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6283184/
-Nicole from Harkla

Cathie
Cathie

April 29, 2021

Are sensory brushes helpful for stroke pateints, that have lost arm movement?

Nicole
Nicole

April 16, 2020

Hi Camille,

Thanks for reading our blog! A surgical brush is recommended as the bristles are stiff and do not bend easily, providing the right amount of sensory input on the skin. Let us know if you have any other questions.

Thanks!
Nicole from Harkla

Camille Belle
Camille Belle

April 16, 2020

Can’t i just use any brush on my 13 yrs old ADHD daughter?

Nicole
Nicole

May 07, 2019

Hey Peter,

I would recommend using different sensory brushes for each child. One exception may be if the children are siblings. It’s a really good idea to buy a pack of many brushes since the bristles do wear out.

Hope this info helps,
Nicole
Harkla

osas Peter
osas Peter

May 02, 2019

thanks molly shaw Wilson for this great information. please I want to find out if it possible or appropriate to use one therapy brush for more than one child?
secondly can it also help in improving writing skills in children with neess?

Nicole
Nicole

April 01, 2019

Hi Janine,

Thanks for your question! I highly recommend talking to your child’s OT. Also, try doing a search on YouTube for “Wilbarger Protocol”. You may be able to find some very helpful “how to” videos.

All the best,
Nicole
Harkla Happiness Ninja

Janine stiene
Janine stiene

April 01, 2019

Do you provide workshops on how, when and why to use brushing technique?

Nicole
Nicole

February 15, 2019

Hi Delene and Fatima,

Thanks for your questions. To find out more about sensory brushing, we recommend talking to an occupational therapist. Results that are seen may differ, depending on the individual. Also, it’s hard to know exactly how long it will take a child to be okay when using a sensory brush. Again, we advise that you speak to an OT for more info!

-The Harkla Team

Fatima
Fatima

January 21, 2019

How long will it take the Child to be okay when using the sensory brush?

Delene Weber
Delene Weber

July 11, 2018

I would like to know if brushing could alleviate neuro pain in arms?

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