Ellen Sternweiler’s parenting philosophy and business model has always been, “Do the best you can, and choose your battles.” Three and a half years ago, the North Center mom had a newborn daughter and two young boys and she struggled to find information and products to help her with cloth diapering, breastfeeding, pelvic health and earth-friendly parenting. Instead of accepting these setbacks, Ellen took up the battle and opened Bellybum Boutique on Lincoln Avenue to help other expectant and new parents find items and support.
Today, Sternweiler faces a new battle: Each of her children has been diagnosed with some form of sensory processing disorder, and she has had trouble finding resources and therapeutic toys to help her kids. So once again, she is using Bellybum to make a difference. This week, she unveiled a new section of the store and her website dedicated to toys, games and tools specifically designed to stimulate, comfort and educate kids through their senses.
“We could continue to sell strollers and high chairs, and people would buy them, but that’s not meaningful to me, and that’s not what parents in this community really need,” Sternweiler said. “We are now able to offer something that local parents really can’t find anywhere else in the back of the store, and continue to serve women and babies through maternity and beyond in the front of the store.”
This is not just exciting for Sternweiler and Bellybum, but for countless parents in Chicago and across the nation who have been touched by the rising number of children diagnosed with sensory processing disorders and other developmental conditions. Many struggle to find products that might help their children socialize, learn and relieve anxiety and stress.
“There are so many things you need to have as a parent of a child with special needs, but it’s very difficult to get them,” Sternweiler said. “You either have to go through your therapist, which can be very time-consuming and costly, or navigate awful therapeutic web sites and be forced to buy products in bulk or through catalogs, which can take months.”
The new “Sensory Kids Store” which houses dozens of products organized by sense, is her answer to this problem. For example, the “Touch” section features highly textured toys and touch-friendly books to help children better understand what it means to feel, as well as a variety of “sensory clothing” which may be weighted to comfort a child who needs to feel secure by constant contact, or tagless to prevent irritation if he or she is highly touch-sensitive.
Dr. Jaime Nichols, a pediatrician at Swedish Covenant Hospital, explained that sensory-focused toys and products like these can be great tools to help parents and kids reinforce what they learn in formal therapy on an everyday basis. She likens the goals of these products with the goals of Illinois’ Early Intervention program through Child and Family Connections, a state-wide service which facilitates evaluations, assessments and therapies for young children with, or at risk for, disabilities.
“The goal of the Early Intervention program is not to fix or change a child with special needs, but rather to help parents engage with their kids in healthy, helpful ways in between therapy sessions,” Nichols said. “The same idea applies to toys and other products that are focused on sensory processing — they are tools a parent can use to engage and interact with their kids.”
Although the items in the store were selected specifically because they can assist children with a variety of special needs, kids without sensory challenges will also enjoy the selection.
“All kids benefit from a sensory diet. Kids with developmental disabilities just need more,” Sternweiler said. “Having easy access to these items in a warm, comfortable, fun environment is a great resource for any parent, and potentially profound for kids and parents facing developmental challenges.”
Sensory tools you may not find anywhere else
Ellen Sternweiler shared recommendations on some of the coolest sensory-focused toys and tools available in her store.
Squishy Press Eco-friendly Picture Books
“These books teach kids about facial expressions and what they mean. This can be particularly helpful for kids with prosopagnosia, a disorder where the brain’s ability to recognize faces and understand expressions is impaired.”
EASE Compatible Audio-Technica Portable Headphones and CDs
“This auditory learning kit is designed for comfort and easy, educational listening for kids, particularly those who struggle with sound levels and processing.”
Toot Turtle Bubble Bucket
“This bubble-blowing game can help kids develop their mouth muscles and work on deep breathing.”
“This is a fun twist on ‘chewy stick therapy’ which can help kids who have oral fixations or are fidgety.”
“The texture and movement of these tactile toys can help with fine motor skills and attention spans.”
Weighted vest sensory clothing
“The weight and pressure of the vest can comfort and calm a child because it feels like a hug. Great for kids who are very hyper.”
Plasmacar ride-on toy
“This is one of my favorites. The uniquely designed car is totally kid-powered and encourages movement through gross motor skills in the upper body and sharpens sensory integration.”
Magnetic responsibility charts
“This product teaches kids priorities and accountability in an easy-to-understand format.”