“Comfort counts: A practical guide to buying sensory-friendly underwear for kids”

Numerous children exhibit heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, leading to the possibility of them experiencing sensory hyper-reactivity (also known as hypersensitivity or over-reactivity) in response to such stimuli (Ilić-Savić, Petrović-Lazić & Resimić, 2021). While this is frequently associated with children with special needs, it’s also prevalent among typically developing children. When a child encounters sensory discomfort or agitation, their nervous system typically reacts with a “fight or flight” response, characterised by behaviours such as tantrums or withdrawal.

Clothing consistently remains in close contact with the body during wear and continuously delivers sensory – and particularly tactile –  input (Shin & Gaines, 2018). Underwear is the first layer of clothing next to the skin and is therefore often called the “second skin”. Underwear contains elements such as seams and labels, which can be particularly distressing for children sensitive to touch (Roy, Ghosh & Bhatt, 2018). If the individual wearing them struggles to redirect their focus from the discomforting sensation, they may react excessively. This heightened response may significantly impact their performance in education, social activities, and routine activities of daily living, such as dressing (Kabel, McBee-Black & Dimka, 2016).

An interdisciplinary study was conducted to get a better understanding of the elements that influence underpants shopping for children with sensory hyper-reactivity to provide practical guidelines to parents when purchasing underpants. The research team purchased a total of 36 different children’s underpants samples from the leading brick-and-mortar retailers operating in South Africa and analysed them systematically. After that, 11 parents of children with sensory hyperreactivity were interviewed. Questions focused on factors contributing to comfort and discomfort (i.e. elastics) and also challenges related to underpants shopping.

The findings unveiled fabric types, elastic materials, seam styles, and labelling susceptible to irritation, as well as those offering more sensory-friendly alternatives. Intriguingly, elements chosen for decorative purposes in girls’ underwear often caused high levels of discomfort. It was clear that purchasing underpants causes headaches for parents. Although underwear is a relatively inexpensive product, it is usually enclosed in a packet, which limits the tactile evaluation of the fabric. In addition, many retailers prohibit the fitting of underpants. The result is that one purchases it in the hope that it will fit and be comfortable. However, if that is not the case, most of the time it can’t be returned. This results in a waste of money.

The findings of this study were used to formulate practical guidelines to assist parents when shopping for underpants for their children with sensory hyper-reactivity.

May these guidelines contribute to one less itch to scratch!



Ilić-Savić, I., Petrović-Lazić, M. & Resimić, R. 2021. Sensory integration and its significance for functioning and development of children’s speech. Medicinski pregled, 74(5-6):205-210.

Kabel, A., McBee-Black, K. & Dimka, J. 2016. Apparel-related participation barriers: ability, adaptation and engagement. Disability and Rehabilitation, 38(22):2184-2192.

Roy, A., Ghosh, H. & Bhatt, I. 2018. A study on tactile defensiveness in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of National Development, 31(2):74-83.

Shin, S.-J.H. & Gaines, K. 2018. Human factors applied to the understanding of the importance of therapeutic clothing textiles for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, 588:951-957.


This study formed part of the master’s degree of Leoné Gouws.

Dr Lizette Diedericks is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria in Consumer Science: Clothing Retail Management. Her area of specialisation is the sensory aspects of clothing and textiles and how clothing can enhance consumer well-being. Before she joined the university, she was a clothing buyer for a South African retailer.

Dr Karin van Niekerk is a lecturer at the Occupational Therapy Department of the University of Pretoria. She is involved in training undergraduate occupational therapy students as well as supervising post-graduate research. Her research interests include early childhood intervention as well as investigating ways to optimise the participation of children with disabilities within their context.