Sensory System: Vestibular

by Ellen Overby, MS, OTR/L

Think about how you feel after you get off a rollercoaster ride. Maybe you are a little dizzy and temporarily disoriented from the fast, unpredictable motion? You’re most likely feeling alert and awake, too. How about when you are swinging back and forth on a playground swing? The repetitive back and forth movement might make you feel calm, relaxed, and more organized. No matter the type of movement, the vestibular system is hard at work to help process the information we’re getting, communicate with our other sensory systems, and then make sense of it for function. 

The vestibular system is a crucial piece of our development. For children, successful vestibular processing enables them to be confident as they move, explore, and most importantly – play! Present at birth, this system is responsible for our sense of motion, balance, equilibrium, and our ability to maintain a stable line of vision as we move. The variety and speed of movement contributes to our arousal regulation. The vestibular system is a fluid-filled mechanism housed in our inner ears that has many tiny hair cells. When our head moves in any direction the fluid moves as well, causing hair cells to activate, which tells your body what’s happening to your head position against gravity, your speed, and your direction of movement. The vestibular system also plays a role in bilateral coordination and core control as the system is housed in both ears, affecting both sides of the body. 

Some children with vestibular processing challenges are overly sensitive, or hyper-responsive to movement. These children are hesitant or fearful of movement, so they will oftentimes avoid physical play and prefer to engage in seated, more predictable activities. They may become distressed when their feet leave the ground to climb a jungle gym or slide down a slide. On the other hand, a child who seems under-responsive to movement will seek more of it in order to get a clearer picture of how and where he or she is moving. Children who are need more of this movement are often seen running, jumping, spinning, or climbing. Vestibular processing also affects balance, coordination, or anticipation of movement – which may make participation in sports or peer games challenging. At the dinner table, a child may squirm or lean on something around them as they try to maintain an upright position in their chair. 

We know children love to and are motivated by play. So, we can use the relevant context of playing to promote vestibular development. We can do this through playing at the park on swings or on the monkey bars. Children can practice movements like running, hopping, skipping, or bear crawling through the sprinkler this summer. Yoga poses are also a great way to expose your child to the feeling of moving and holding their head in different positions. As you have fun playing, pay attention to your child’s affect and arousal. If fast, multi-directional movement is too overwhelming, it is important to adjust the activity or take a break. In many cases, back and forth movement helps to calm, relax, and reset the body, as it is predictable and rhythmic. By understanding our children’s needs and meeting them where they are, we have the potential to make an impact on vestibular processing and have a lot of fun, too! 

References: 

Lane, Shelly J., Mailloux, Z., Schoen, S., Bundy, A., May-Bensen, T. A., Parham, L. D., Smith Roley, S. & Schaff, R. C. (2019). Neural Foundations of Ayres Sensory Integration. Brain Sciences. Doi: 10.3390/brainsci9070153. 

Smith Roley, S. (2017). M1 Section III Lesson 5 Vestibular System [PowerPoint slides].