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At every age, senses help with more than just seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and hearing. Senses play an important role in everything from staying balanced, to riding a bike, to knowing when we’re hungry and thirsty.

Here we’ll dive into a sense called interoception, also known as the internal body sense. Learn more about all the senses by visiting our sensory page, or read about proprioception (the body awareness sense) and the vestibular sense (the balance sense).

What is the interoceptive sense?

This sense helps us understand our body’s internal sensations. This is the sense that helps us know if we’re hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, or any other feeling that begins within our bodies.

It also helps with emotional regulation, as some of our emotions are linked to physical sensations. For example, think about how feeling anxious can cause a racing heart, a dry mouth, sweating, tingling, and other physical sensations. Interoception helps you understand these physical signs and regulate emotions. If you begin feeling anxious, you can also begin to take steps to feel calm, like taking deep breaths or going for a walk.

Where does interoception come from?

There are receptors inside our organs and in our skin that send messages to the brain. Our brain learns what these messages mean and how to appropriately address them. We begin to understand the most basic messages (such as hunger and thirst) from birth, while understanding emotions and more complex needs may develop at a later age.

What are some examples of interoception?

  • Feeling hungry or thirsty: We feel the sensation of hungry (sometimes accompanied by a rumbling stomach or shakiness) and respond by craving food that will satisfy the hunger. We feel thirsty and look for something to drink.
  • Using the bathroom: We can feel the sensation that the bladder is full and use the bathroom in appropriate time to relieve this feeling. Interoception plays a crucial role in potty training, as it helps baby to know when they need to go.
  • Cooling off on a hot day: We feel our body warm up, heart rate increase, and the sensation of thirst. In response to these sensations, we recognize we are hot and we may drink some cold water, find shade, or go inside.
  • Feeling afraid: We feel our heart race, our breathing change, and our muscles tense as a sign that we are afraid. Sometimes recognizing fear can be good because it helps us avoid danger.
  • Sensing tiredness: We feel our energy level drop and know to slow down and get some sleep.

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What are signs your child may have an interoceptive issue?

Interoceptive issues can look very different, but they are all caused by an inability to understand the body’s internal signals. Children with interoceptive issues may not know when they’re in pain, when they’re hungry, or when they’re tired. If they struggle with identifying these needs, they may have trouble regulating their energy levels.

Children may also feel sensations inaccurately. For example, children may struggle with potty training because they feel a sensation differently when they need to use the bathroom. This may result in bed-wetting and accidents.

Talk to a healthcare provider if you suspect a sensory issue.

How can you help develop your child’s interoception sense?

  • Creating a routine: Routines help develop life skills and regulate emotions. It also helps with the interoception sense if baby sleeps and eats at the same time.
  • Practicing mindfulness: Mindfulness helps us relax and pay attention to our body’s needs.
  • Teach children the words for their internal feelings: When children begin using words, encourage them to express their internal feelings by speaking them. For example, around mealtime ask them if they are hungry and encourage them to say “I feel hungry”. You can even begin to teach them basic words before they begin speaking through baby sign language.
  • Strengthen their proprioceptive sense: Proprioception is the body awareness sense. By being more aware of their body, children can also better understand their internal needs.