Aside from the classic five senses (touch, sight, taste, smell and hearing), there are two less famous but equally important ones: Proprioception and the vestibular system. The classic five are external senses, processing information from outside the body. Proprioception and the vestibular system are internal senses, and process information from inside the body.
The vestibular system is our sense of balance and motion. It uses information from fluid in the inner ear to let us know the overall position of our body, whether or not we are moving, and if we are moving how quickly and in what direction.
Let’s take a look at how we rely on our vestibular system to function, and then we’ll explore how it affects development.
The Roles of the Vestibular System
This system helps us:
- Orient ourselves in space — The vestibular system tells us the position of our head, so we know if we are upright, leaning back, lying down, upside-down, etc.
- Remain balanced — Every time we change position, the fluid in our inner ear moves. The brain tracks that movement and tells our body how to shift in order to maintain balance. This is how we’re able to tilt our head back in the shower, lean to reach something, jump over a puddle, etc. without falling down.
- Feel safe while moving — The vestibular system helps us feel secure while running, swinging, or simply stepping out of bed in the morning.
- Coordinate eye and head movements — We rely on our vestibular system for activities like copying from a white board, watching a movie, or reading.
- Coordinate both sides of the body — When we do things like walk, drive a car, cut with scissors or ride a bike, our vestibular system maintains equilibrium while our proprioceptive sense tells us how to use our body parts.
The Vestibular System and Development
The vestibular system begins to develop in the womb. Once a baby is born, any movement that changes his position or gently rocks, rolls, bounces, swings or spins him stimulates and strengthens his vestibular system. This sets him up for healthy vestibular development.
Stimulating the vestibular system also develops muscle tone, because it teaches a baby which muscles to use to keep his body balanced in different positions. Developing and strengthening muscle tone is essential not only for movement, but also for sitting still! When it’s time to use his small muscles for tasks like drawing, cutting, or building LEGOs, his big muscles provide postural control.
Some children have trouble processing vestibular input. Signs of this in baby and toddlerhood include intense negative reactions to changes in body position or having the head tilted back, lagging behind on milestones, being afraid to crawl, walk, climb stairs and so on without help from an adult, constant fidgeting, trouble concentrating, or difficulty with fine motor tasks (including tracking with the eyes). If you notice any of these consistently, your pediatrician or a pediatric physical or occupational therapist can offer guidance.
Supporting Your Child’s Vestibular Development
A strong vestibular system develops through movement, so keep your little one moving! Give your newborn tummy time and your older infant time to practice rolling and sitting. Rock your baby, dance with her, bounce her on your lap, and gently swing her around. Follow your crawler around the house, or chase your wobbly new runner through the park. The sensory and gross motor areas of our our BabySparks program are great resources for actives that stimulate the vestibular system.