Advice Column, Pregnancy & Baby, Toddler

A balancing act: Developing your child’s vestibular system

  • Clamber Club
  • Category Advice Column, Pregnancy & Baby, Toddler

The vestibular system is found in the inner ear and responds to head movement and gravity. It connects and organises all other sensory input, contributing to a child’s sense of balance and spatial orientation. Difficulties with vestibular processing and regulation can disrupt everything from gross motor co-ordination and learning to mood and behaviour.

Impact on your child’s development

The vestibular system works closely with all the other sensory systems to organise and process incoming information about gravity and movement. If you bend down suddenly when holding a new-born, you will notice the baby startle and their arms reach out as if to stop themselves from falling (protective extension). This shows the baby’s developing vestibular system in relation to gravity and space. 

“One of the most basic of all human relationships is our relationship to the gravitational field of the earth. This relationship is far more primal than the mother-child relationship. Sensory integration of the vestibular system gives us `gravitational security’ – the trust that we are firmly connected to the earth, and will always have a safe place to stand. Children with vestibular processing difficulties do not feel grounded or safe,” says Nicole Katzenellenbogen, Occupational Therapist and Clamber Club Franchisee Trainer.

The vestibular system also sends signals to the neural structures that control eye movements, and helps us to understand if we are moving or if an object is moving. “When a child receives correct information from the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems, they are able to feel and understand how their bodies are moving and working without their vision,” says Liz Senior, Occupational Therapist and Founder of Clamber Club. “This also allows for fluid bilateral integration to develop – the ability to use both sides of the body together in a smooth and co-ordinated manner,” she explains. This is necessary for gross motor skills such as hopping and skipping, and for functional skills such as tying shoelaces and cutting.

The role of balance 

“We often take the skill of balance for granted,” says Katzenellenbogen. “Being able to balance is not only about standing on one leg, it is also about carrying a bag and walking at the same time. Balance is dependent on an adequately functioning vestibular system as the sense of movement and gravity is what keeps us upright and helps us understand our relationship to space.” Balance is also dependent on appropriate proprioceptive feedback – our unconscious awareness of our body parts in relation to each other and the environment. 

Vestibular and proprioceptive impulses also interact to warn the brain of possible injury to the body when it is about to fall. 

Activities to develop your child’s vestibular system

Balance is an important aspect of a child’s development and can be improved by stimulating the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, as well as improving postural control. 

For babies

Vestibular activities: 

  • Sitting on a lap and gently bouncing
  • Bouncing on a therapy ball
  • Aeroplane on your legs 
  • Swinging in a blanket held by two adults

Proprioceptive activities:

  • Massage
  • Tummy time 
  • Have baby lie on your legs facing you with her feet on your tummy. Let her kick her hands and push against your body

Postural activities:

  • Rolling from tummy to back 
  • Teaching baby to reach for her toes
  • Tummy time

For toddlers

Vestibular activities: 

  • Dancing around the room, twirling and spinning
  • Sitting on a lap and playing Horsie-Horsie
  • Swinging in a swing or hammock

Proprioceptive activities:

  • Crawling through and over various surfaces
  • Pulling and pushing heavy items
  • Create a crash pad for your child to jump and crash on to

For pre-schoolers

Vestibular activities: 

  • Spinning and running around in circles
  • Holding arms and spinning
  • Swinging in a swing or hammock
  • Merry-go-rounds

Proprioceptive activities:

  • Pulling and pushing heavy items
  • Climbing and crawling over various surfaces. 
  • Tug of war, wrestling

Postural activities:

  • Jungle gyms and free outdoor play
  • Swimming
  • Balance beams
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