The Vestibular System: What the Heck is it and Why do I Need to Know About it?
I feel the same way about understanding the vestibular system as I do about meditating, budgeting, and onesie shoulder flaps- I wish I’d known about the life-changing benefits of these things sooner!
The first time my older son’s physical therapist referenced his vestibular system, I enthusiastically nodded as if I completely understood what she was talking about. After leaving his session, I googled “vestibular system.” The truth was I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.
Turns out this little talked about sensory system is hugely important in terms of our overall functioning as humans. Who knew!
It’s been almost six years since I began my journey into the world of sensory processing through my older son’s developmental journey, and I’m still discovering new things about the vestibular system’s influence on all of our other sensory systems and our overall sense of well-being.
I’m by no means an expert on the topic, but I want to distill what I’ve learned to (hopefully) lessen your learning curve and to give you the information you need in order to better understand your child’s sensory processing challenges. It’s important to note that many, but not all, children with sensory processing challenges have impaired vestibular functioning.
Ok, let’s dive in.
What is the Vestibular System?
I have scoured countless books and online articles in search of a simplified answer to this question and have yet to find one. So, rather than trying to explain it in a lengthy paragraph, here are the facts.
The Vestibular System:
- Is the first sensory system to develop in utero (begins developing in 2nd gestational week and is well developed by 5th month in utero)
- Is located in the inner ear
- Provides information about balance, movement, and where our bodies are in space
- Answers two questions: Which way is up? and Where am I going?
- Determines ability to move our bodies smoothly and efficiently
- Coordinates eye and head movements
- Directly or indirectly influences everything we do (the most influential sensory system)
- Acts like a “traffic cop” in our brains, coordinating and directing information received from our other senses (main organizer of sensory input)
- Influences posture, coordination, movement, attention, self-regulation, behavior, muscle tone, and language development
Fascinating, right? For such an important sensory system, it really hasn’t received its fair share of attention!
Why is the Vestibular System Important?
What if you didn’t have a solid awareness of where your body is in space?
When you’re lying on your back, you’re not exactly sure what position your body is in- Am I up? Down? Sideways? Um, this isn’t cool guys, can someone help me out here?
When you go on a swing, your brain gets confused- I know I’m moving, but how fast and in what direction? Yikes! Help! Can someone please stop this thing!!
You often lose your balance, run into things, and trip- I saw the table but somehow I still ran right into it.
At work, when you have to take notes during a powerpoint presentation, forget it. Every time you move your head to look back up at the screen, you lose your place on your page. You struggle to keep up while everyone else moves on to the next slide- Wait! I’m not done, you internally fret as the presenter clicks to the next slide.
Others describe you as clumsy, uncoordinated, or slightly awkward and this is how you’ve come to describe yourself- Let’s just say I won’t ever be an Olympic contender, you half-heartedly joke.
Now, imagine an infant who, when placed on his back for a diaper change, has no idea where his body is in space. A toddler at a playground who, the minute his feet are off the ground, loses a sense of where he is. A preschooler who constantly trips and runs into things in his crowded classroom. A school-aged child who struggles to do seemingly “easy” and “straightforward” tasks causing him to fall behind his classmates. A teenager who gets teased for being clumsy and never gets picked for team sports.
A well-functioning vestibular system enables a child to feel secure and confident in their body so they can move, focus, learn, self-regulate and engage with the world with ease.
It’s the foundation for our sense of safety and security, our sense of where we are and who we are in the world. Its impact on our overall functioning and sense of well-being cannot be overstated.
Signs of Poor Vestibular Processing
Children with poor vestibular processing can either be over-responsive (avoidant) to vestibular input, as in the example above, or under-responsive (seeking).
If a child is over-responsive, he may:
- Avoid movement at all costs or be very “cautious” of movement
- Have difficulty balancing
- Have difficulty walking on uneven surfaces
- Have difficulty navigating stairs
- Be fearful of heights
- Be fearful of playground equipment
- Dislike being held upside down, spun, or placed on back
- Become dizzy at the slightest spin
- Have low muscle tone
- Tire easily/ appear lethargic
- Seem “lazy”
If a child is under-responsive, he may:
- Be unable to sit without fidgeting
- Be in constant motion
- Seek out excessive movements like spinning
- Be described as having a motor inside him that’s on full throttle at all times
- Be impulsive
- Be fearless, engage in risky behaviors
- Be able to spin excessively without getting dizzy
- Appear hyper
Other signs of poor vestibular functioning (evident in both over-responsive and under-responsive):
- Difficulty focusing and staying alert
- Difficulty self-regulating
- Appear clumsy/uncoordinated
- Speech delays
- Emotional insecurity
- Inflexible and controlling behaviors
- Social problems
- Vulnerable to/easily stressed by unpredictable situations
- Difficulty tracking objects
- Difficulty motor planning (sequencing movements)
- Difficulty with tasks requiring eyes to move left to right (e.g. reading) or up and down (e.g. copying information from the board)
- Poor organization
What Causes Poor Vestibular Processing?
It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of poor vestibular processing, but some possible causes include:
- Premature birth
- Prolonged stay in the NICU
- Exposure to excessive movement in utero or infancy
- Exposure to invasive sounds in utero or infancy
- Head trauma
- Repeated and/or severe ear infections
- Maternal drug or alcohol abuse during pregnancy
- Sedentary lifestyle
My Child Displays Signs of Poor Vestibular Processing...Now What?
Here’s the good news: There are lots of easy ways you can promote better vestibular processing for your child. Yay! I love tangible solutions! The goal is to get your child’s head in as many different positions as possible, while making sure he doesn’t become overstimulated and/or dysregulated.
But, first and foremost, if you’re concerned about your child and haven’t already had him evaluated by an occupational therapist (OT) who is certified in sensory integration, schedule an evaluation.
Here are 25 vestibular integration activities that I do regularly with my boys (Note: It’s important to consult with your child’s OT before incorporating any new vestibular integration activities):
- Swinging, sliding, seesaws- think playground time!
- Yoga ball rolls- put him on his belly over the yoga ball with his arms stretched out, hold his hands, and gently rock him back and forth
- Yoga ball bounces- sit him on your lap and do gentle bounces
- Log rolling down a hill
- Jumping on mini trampoline (Bonus points for playing catch while he’s jumping)
- Balance board- have your child balance while you throw bean bags for him to catch
- Hanging upside down on monkey bars
- Wheelbarrow walking
- Tummy time
- Downward dog
- Scooter board rides- have him lay on belly, hold on to jump rope handles and pull him across the room (my boys love this!!)
- Gymnastics- somersaults, handstands, cartwheels...
- Jump rope
- Swimming (one of the overall best activities for sensory input)
- Ride a scooter
- Ride a bike
- Sit and spin
- Dance parties (make sure to include some spinning and twirling)
- Make a hammock out of a blanket and swing your child in it
- Obstacle course
- Pull your child around the house on a blanket
- Bear crawling
- Crab crawling
- Any kind of rocking activity- a rocking horse, Rody, rocking chair etc.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of the vestibular system and why it plays such a crucial role in sensory processing. Does your child have vestibular processing challenges? How do they impact his functioning? What interventions have helped? Leave your comments or questions below, I’d love to hear from you.