Nearly 10 years ago, I went to my first Village class with my oldest, Nathan. Our teacher kept speaking about the “vestibular system” when we rocked. I had no idea what she was talking about. Seven years later, my second child Rob ended up in Occupational Therapy, and there I began to understand this “vestibular system”. It’s one of the 8 senses I’ve been blogging about, and influences nearly everything we do.
First to develop.
The vestibular system is the first to develop in the womb. At just two weeks after conception, it starts to form, and by 4 ½ months it has begun operating. Throughout gestation, this system gets constant stimulation from the mother’s movements. This early development means it has many connections with the rest of the brain, which results in everything else developing around and integrating with it. The vestibular system continues to be very active through the first 15 months.
What is it?
The vestibular system is made up of several structures in the inner ear. When the head tilts in any direction, fluid moves small hairs in the inner ear, and their movement lets us know our orientation in space. (Are we upside down? Leaning? Standing straight?) The vestibular system also tells us how fast we are moving, the direction we are going, and helps us keep our balance.
It coordinates information from the inner ear, eyes, muscles and joints, fingertips, and feet. The vestibular system also adjusts heart rate, blood pressure, limb position, nervous system arousal, and immune responses.
Of the 8 senses, the vestibular system has the greatest effect on our ability to function in everyday life. This very important system is used when we read, hear, speak, touch, balance, and move.
What happens when it isn’t working properly?A child with vestibular system issues may have problems with balance and body control, and may seem clumsy. Problems may also manifest themselves as a child that needs to move all the time (rocking, jumping, humming, banging). The child is innately trying to stimulate and regulate their vestibular system.
Other children are fearful of movement because it is frightening; they need both feet firmly planted on the ground to feel safe. When their vestibular system under-responds to movement they sometimes panic. These children might not like swings, slides, floating in water, having their head tipped back, being tossed in the air, or jumping on the trampoline.
Later in life some of these children won’t like people in their personal space and may become agressive when someone gets “too close”. Someone in their personal space scares them, as they don’t have a good sense of where their own bodies are.
Why we move.
Humans have an innate need to regulate themselves through vestibular stimulation. Everyone’s level of need for movement is unique and individual. There is no “normal”. People need vestibular stimulation for both calming and arousing. Babies are calmed by a rocking chair or a gentle back and forth motion, just like an adult on a porch swing…this is what it feels like to calm yourself using your vestibular system. Or, if you have ever been sitting for too long and are itching to get up after a long plane ride; that is how it feels to want for the arousing effects of the vestibular system.
Children generally want and need more vestibular stimulation than adults do. This is why we spin, lift, throw our children and they love it. That is also why so many toys are developed to spin, whirl and jostle kids around! Every child has a different “recipe” for the perfect amount of vestibular input. Some need stronger, more intense movements to satisfy them. For others, gentle rocking suffices. Whichever, there is no question that children respond well and are more successful when they have a balance of play activities that meet their sensory cravings.
What can I do to stimulate my child’s vestibular system?
So, now you understand a little bit more about the vestibular system. In your Kindermusik class, we rock, roll, swing, dance, twirl, take basket rides, hammock, bounce and jump. You can do all of these things at home.
Here is a list of other ideas that either stimulate or calm your child’s vestibular system:
• Swings, merry-go-round, see-saw, and other playground equipment
• Bouncing in your lap, on large ball, trampoline, or on a hippity-hop
• Jumping, rolling, spinning
• Swinging in hammock or bed sheet
• Rocking in rocking chair
• Running, skipping, galloping
• Wagon rides, toy ride-ons, scooter board (laying on your tummy)
-posted by Miss Analiisa, who owes many thanks to Rob’s OT, Vicki Nelson, for her valuable input and advice, and for helping me to understand why Rob preferred to be held upside down as a baby while we rocked or danced.