Post by Lindsey Moyer, Licensed pediatric occupational therapist, North Shore Pediatric Therapy
Most kids learn about the 5 basic extrinsic senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Many, however, are not as familiar with two hidden intrinsic senses: the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. The vestibular sense is one of the first to develop in a growing fetus and is stimulated by the movement of a carrying mother’s body. By only 5 months in utero, this system is well developed and provides a great deal of sensory information to a growing fetal brain. This system is very important to a child’s early development. Its role is to relay information to the brain as to where a person is in space, as related to gravity; whether they are moving or still, if they are moving how quickly, and in what direction. The vestibular system gathers that information from a set of fluid filled canals and a sac-like structure in the inner ear. These structures respond to movement, change in direction, change of head position, and gravitational pull.
4 Ways the vestibular system may impact your child:
1. The vestibular system coordinates eye and head movements. Without this coordination, it may be challenging for children to complete everyday activities such as copying from a white board in their classroom, following a moving object such as a softball through the air; or visually scanning across a page to read. The vestibular system helps the brain to register and respond to whether the object the child is looking at is moving or if their head is moving.
2. The vestibular system also helps to develop and maintain normal muscle tone. Muscle tone is the ability of a muscle to sustain a contraction. Without a proper functioning vestibular system, it may be challenging for a child to hold their body in one position. These children may oftentimes prefer laying on the floor instead of sitting up during circle time or leaning on their elbow or hand while seated at their desk.
3. The vestibular system also impacts a child’s balance and equilibrium. As your child moves throughout their environment, so does the fluid in their inner ear canals. As the fluid in their inner ear moves, your child’s brain is receiving information as to the position of their head in space. Depending on that signal, the brain then sends a message to your child’s body signaling it to move in a way that will help them to respond to and compensate for any planned or unplanned movements. Without efficient vestibular processing, your child may appear to be clumsy and have trouble staying on their feet during routine play.
4. Finally, the vestibular system helps a child to coordinate both sides of their body together for activities including riding a bicycle, catching a ball, zipping a coat, or cutting with scissors.
If you suspect that your child is having difficulty processing sensory information by way of their vestibular system, do your best to be sure that activities including a lot self-propelled movement are incorporated into their day. Activities may include swinging, sliding, or using other equipment at the park. Do your best to avoid activities with excessive spinning or twirling as movement in these planes can have negative effects including over-stimulation, lethargy, or changes in heart rate or breathing. It may also be challenging for your child to pace themselves during these quick paced movement patterns. Encourage activities in which your child lays on their belly to participate in games or play with toys. Throughout your day, take note to see if your child seems better able to focus after completing physical activity or partaking in activities that get them up and moving.
The vestibular system may be less commonly discussed than other sensory tracts, but its impact on your child’s ability to complete day to day activities are vast.