The vestibular system plays a critical role in our daily life. In fact, it is also known as our sixth sense. Yes, attachment and bonding are crucial and so is breastfeeding but nurturing your child’s vestibular system is critical for his physical, intellectual and emotional development.
This system controls almost everything we do – balance, coordination, eye movement, reflexes, fine motor skills, and even emotional self-regulation.
An underdeveloped vestibular system invariably leads to numerous problems – one being Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). And SPD and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) usually go hand in hand.
In recent years, there has been an increase in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and other learning difficulties in kids. Could this be attributed to an underdeveloped vestibular system?
What Is The Vestibular System
The vestibular system is the body’s internal GPS. This sensory system processes and coordinates inputs from all of the other sensory organs, namely our eyes and ears. and translates it into action. Balance, coordination, proprioceptive movement are dependant on the vestibular apparatus.
The vestibular system is one of the first systems to develop in utero. It is located behind the ear and it consists of the middle ear, the inner ear, and the vestibular organ.
It helps us navigate changes in our environment smoothly. If there is a bump in our path, the vestibular system signals to our brain which in turn sends impulses to our limbs to stay steady. All theses message transmissions happen at lightening speed but only if our vestibular system is working optimally.
The vestibular system helps coordinate eye and head movements, develop and maintain normal muscle tone and balance. Lack of proper stimulation during the early months in a child’s life could affect your child’s sense of balance and movement, thereby affecting his behavior and emotional well-being.
Babywearing Develops The Vestibular System
Once upon a time, it was common practice for the mother to wear her baby after birth. It soothed the baby and helped form the attachment bond. Moreover, babywearing also stimulates the vestibular system of your baby. Babywearing imitates the womb-like movements which not only soothe the baby but also gently exercises its developing vestibular system,
The first 3 months of a baby’s life are like an extension of life in the womb. We can replicate the conditions of the womb by holding our babies close in the first three months and beyond. Baby-wearing is the best way to keep our little one close while carrying on our daily chores. And babies love the gentle rhythmic movement, swaying to their caregiver’s motions. It calms them and helps build crucial attachment bonds.
A cradle swing is a second-best alternative. The gentle swinging motion also exercises the vestibular system.
Furthermore, the somatic stimulation of carrying is very important to the maturation of the vestibular cerebellar system. The swinging motion strengthens the vestibular and proprioceptive systems by naturally training your child’s brain and body to work together.
Stimulation of the vestibular system should start when they are babies and the best way to do it through gentle rhythmic motion – carrying, swinging, rocking, or even swimming.
This sensory integration is critical for your child’s success not just on the playground but also greatly affects his ability to learn.
Sensory Integration Is Important
An underdeveloped vestibular system means poor sensory integration. This means that the signals from a child’s senses are not properly communicated to their brain, leading to issues with balance, movement, hand-eye coordination. Simple tasks like tying a shoe-lace, running or throwing a ball may not be effortless. Moreover, poor coordination and muscle tone also affects the fine motor skills of a child, leading to dyspraxia or dysgraphia.
If a child’s internal GPS system is under-developed they will have more difficulty coping with tasks at school.
Sensory integration is all about achieving balance and coordination. When the vestibular system is working optimally, there is a perfect synchronization of information and action. The brainstem receives inputs and transmits impulses to muscles that control movements of the legs, arms, head, neck, eyes, and joints. Thus allowing your child to maintain balance, orientation and navigate easily through life.
Sensory Processing Disorder
When the vestibular system is underdeveloped, a child may face issues dealing with his environment. They may find the inputs received too overwhelming and are unable to process information in a normal way.
Sensory processing issues represent a feature of a number of disorders, including anxiety problems, ADHD, food intolerances, behavioral disorders, and particularly, autism spectrum disorders
Vestibular Integration Activities
The vestibular system helps us feel safe and secure in our bodies. It is vital for regulating the level of liveliness in a child. Imagine how shameful it is for a child who can’t jump well or can’t write or can’t kick a ball. He will suffer from low confidence which in turn affects long-term personality development.
Some simple ways to help build your child’s vestibular system is swinging – hammock, swing, spinning, rocking, climbing, slides, roller coasters, swimming or bouncing. In fact, any activity that requires them to be in motion, up-down, left-right. It’s all about shaking the fluid in your inner ear.
A child with a well developed vestibular system will have no difficulty jumping, climbing, spinning or engaging in any activity whether at school or in the playground.
You don’t need expensive gadgets to activate your child’s vestibular system. Start when they are babies, carrying them, bouncing them, twirling around with them. These activities besides being great fun and good for parent-child bonding, also develop sensory integration. This is the best foundation for healthy, happy and successful kids.
Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head – Carla Hannaford
The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind – Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, Patricia K. Kuhl