You probably aren’t ruining your kid: A closer look at the vestibular system.

Recently, a friend sent me an article about “Why Children Won’t Listen” and asked for my thoughts. During my first quick skim of the article (at 1am), I thought the author made some great points about how the proprioceptive and vestibular senses affect attention. Then I read it again, and as I took off my occupational therapist lenses and started to read it through with my mom eyes, I realized that it was another article that turned an opportunity to educate into mom-shaming.

The impression I got from this author’s post, was that if you aren’t letting your kids run outside for 5-8 hours a day, climb on top of the swing set, and constantly be on the edge of danger, their vestibular and proprioceptive senses WILL NOT develop properly and they WILL fall out of their seats in school and they WILL NOT be able to listen to directions. She also didn’t do a great job explaining at what these mystery senses actually were. She just referred to vague descriptions and linked jargon-laden websites. At least she DID cite some sources. . . (I’m looking at you, and They’re the queens of mom-shaming listicles with no references).

I could easily see where a parent who doesn’t have a background in child development would read this article and think, “Oh my goodness, we can’t possibly follow all of these requirements! I’m definitely ruining my kid.” I have good news for you. It is highly unlikely that you are ruining your kid.  The average kid will naturally gravitate toward sensory-system developing activities, as long as we give them the freedom. Of course, there are a lot of kids who need a little extra help in these areas, so if you have concerns, talk to your doctor and get a referral for OT!

I’m not going to link that article here in my blog, because if I did, I would want to pick it apart so you knew exactly which parts I didn’t like. If you want to read it, send me a message and I’ll send you the link. 

So now, your friendly neighborhood occupational therapist is going to break down these mystery senses. I’m not writing this for other therapists, I’m writing this for people who have never heard the words “vestibular” or “proprioception.” I’m going to explain these senses to the best of my abilities and then give you activities that will help your child develop those senses. This will be a two part post. Part One will cover the vestibular system and Part Two will cover proprioception.

What is the vestibular sense or system? 

The inner ear contains three semi-circular canals. These canals have fluid in them. The position of the fluid in these canals tells your brain the position of your head in space. They tell your brain if you are swinging, spinning, rolling, etc. There are also chambers that detect movement such as running or jumping. These chambers have tiny crystals in them that bend the motion-sensing hairs during linear movement. They work together to send signals to your brain about what type of movement you are doing and how fast.

If you’re having trouble visualizing that whole setup, think of holding out a glass halfway full of water. You wuickly push the glass farther from you and the water moves, just like the crystals and hairs in the chambers would. Tip the glass from side to side, and that’s similar to what’s happening in the semicircular canals while you’re swinging. Imagine that the inside of that glass is covered with tiny dots. Those dots represent the receptors that send signals to your brain about position changes. The brain takes that information and makes adjustments in your posture to help you stay upright and stable. (Yes, I know it’s not an exact model, I’m just trying to give a visual here).

All of this information gets processed in your brain, along with information from your eyes and from your body, to tell your brain where your body is in space, where it’s going, and what your body needs to do about it. If you’re suddenly falling to the side, your visual system and vestibular system are going to be sending information that tells your brain to send signals to your body to brace for a fall. Next time you’re on a swing, pay close attention to your muscles, especially those in your stomach, chest, and back. Your vestibular system is going to be sending signals to your torso to contract and relax certain muscle groups to help you maintain your balance according to which direction you are swinging.

Is this all making sense? 

Why does it matter? 

Your vestibular system is always sending signals to your brain about movement.  As a child develops, they are drawn toward movements that really push their vestibular systems. Think of that glass of water we visualized earlier. As adults, we like our water glass to stay pretty calm, we know our bodies pretty well and our bodies know how to react to different movements. But kids? They like their water glass to be flipped upside down (maybe a water glass with a lid would be a better visual…), swirled around, and swung back and forth. They want (and NEED) that water on every inner surface of that glass (and the added lid). It helps their brains learn about what their muscles should be doing in every scenario.

That’s why kids tend to want to run, jump, swing, spin, and bounce all over the place! Their instincts tell them that they need to test out all of those different positions so that their brains can learn what to tell the body to do. It’s how a kid learns to catch themselves as they stumble or how to stay upright as they spin. They NEED to take some risks and move in new directions to help their brains teach their bodies how to react. But, more on that later.

Do you know what activities don’t get water sloshed all over the inside of that glass? Playing on a tablet or a phone. Watching TV. Think of how incredibly still their little heads are while they are watching YouTube videos. There is no fluid movement going on in those inner ears. Their eyes are taking in a lot of information, but there’s no movement to pair with it, so the vestibular system is sitting there, twiddling its thumbs, waiting for a chance to be helpful. The vestibular system is getting no chance to develop.

Am I suggesting a ban on screen time? Oh, goodness no. I have two small children with another on the way. Netflix or YouTube breaks help us ALL rest and recharge. A tablet with games and videos helped me motivate my daughter to sit on the potty during the potty training phase. Sometimes, we just need to be still, and a screen can help with that. 

What does that have to do with paying attention in school? 

Try to think about all the different ways a kid’s head is moving just while trying to copy from the board. Look up, read what’s on the board, look down, copy down the information. There are some angular movements just in that small motion. For a kid with a typically developed vestibular system, that motion is no big deal. Their posture stays the same because their inner ear and brain have worked on that motion thousands of times. They know they aren’t about to totally fall forward or backwards. They can even take in verbal instructions as they are going through the motions.

A kid with an underdeveloped vestibular system, however, might be sitting straight up while they look at the board, slouch as they write, fumble the pencil, miss the verbal instructions, and have to look back up at the board to re-read what they missed. Their brain is working so hard to put all these extra pieces together because the part that should come naturally (looking up and down while maintaining a good posture), is using a lot of its resources.

Imagine that you’ve just joined a yoga class that moves through positions pretty quickly. You’re trying your best to keep up, moving your head and body like the instructor is demonstrating. At the same time, you’re doing the sign language alphabet, and your spouse is asking you to get some items from the grocery store. That’s pretty overwhelming, right? All of that input at one time is just too much to handle. I’m sure you’d get frustrated and one of those areas would suffer- you wouldn’t remember what groceries you need, or you’d skip letters in the alphabet, or your yoga positions would be awkward and off-balance.

That’s similar to what these kids with underdeveloped vestibular systems are dealing with during simple classroom or playground interactions. Their brains and bodies are working so hard just to keep them in the right position (staying still or moving, depending on the situation), that other areas, such as listening, can suffer.

How do I know if there’s an issue?

Some vestibular systems need a little outside help. They might not process signals correctly, they might need a ton of input,  or they might overreact to what would be normal input. Your child might have some vestibular processing issues if you notice some of the following:
– Frequent falls or clumsy behavior
-Dislike of activities like swinging, sliding, riding a bike
– Motion sickness or frequent dizziness
– Impulsive risk-taking behavior
– Difficulty sitting still
-Preference for sedentary activities

If you’re seeing some of these signs in your child, it could be because their vestibular system needs some help. It could be for other reasons, too, but talking to your doctor and getting a referral for occupational therapy is a good start.

What can we do at home? 

To put it simply, let them take risks. Let them slosh that water all over the inside of their glass frequently so that their bodies can learn how to react to position changes. Anything that gets their heads out of the “TV watching” position is going to be beneficial. Let them spin in circles until they fall down, let them jump off the couch, let them roll down hills and hang upside down. Start early by giving them safe areas to test their limits and try to keep the words, “be careful!” from constantly jumping out of your mouth. It’s easier said than done, but we have to let them learn how to fall, so they eventually learn how to catch themselves.

Ideas for babies: pile pillows on the floor and let them crawl over them, play airplane, play horsey on your knee, roll on the floor, imitate nodding and shaking heads, tip them side to side, let them learn to catch themselves when learning to sit (put pillows all around so they have a soft landing, of course), bounce, sway, and rock them.
Ideas for toddlers-preschoolers: let them crawl up on beds or couches (don’t help them!), crawl over, under, and around obstacles, imitate various animal walks and positions, let them do headstands on the couch, play on the playground, swim, do gymnastics, run, jump on a trampoline, swing in different positions, ride a tricycle, look at books while on their belly or on their side, do silly dances, spin until they get dizzy.
Ideas for school-age kids:  Any of the above, plus sports, jump out of swings, climb on playground equipment, martial arts, yoga, anything active!

Each age group is going to naturally gravitate toward these types of activities when given the chance. Our job as parents is to let their bodies practice reacting to the new input they receive in a safe environment. When I was working in homes for early intervention, I frequently recommended “Dad play,” meaning the type of play that dads are known for- tossing the kids in the air, wrestling around, flipping them upside down- all of those things that give us moms gray hair as we watch and cringe!

The end!

The vestibular system is complex, and works closely with other sensory systems. There is a lot more nuanced information available that I didn’t even touch, because I wanted this to be a friendly introduction to the vestibular system. I hope you leave this article with a better understanding of what the vestibular system does and why it is important.

If you have concerns about your child’s sensory processing, here are a few books available on Amazon that may help. (affiliate links)

I am a licensed occupational therapist in the state of Indiana. Any information or activities provided on this blog are not intended to treat or diagnose and should not be used in that manner. Talk to your doctor if you think you or your child would benefit from occupational therapy services. 

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