What is the vestibular system?
The vestibular system refers to the nervous system’s mechanisms for registering and interpreting movement and relation to gravity. Structures in the inner ear (including hairs, crystals, fluids, and small organs) receive information about movement and balance to send to our brains to help us understand our relationship with gravity. The vestibular system is our body’s primary way to organize sensory information, so abnormalities in how we integrate this information can affect how we perceive information from all our other senses. Some children can’t get enough vestibular input, and actively seek out jumping, climbing, and swinging. Other children are hypersensitive to vestibular input and may become irritable, scared, or avoidant with simple activities such as being laid down for a diaper change or lifted in the air. For hypersensitive children, small amounts of movement may feel as exaggerated as riding a rollercoaster.
In severe cases, children with vestibular hypersensitivities may experience gravitational insecurity, characterized by emotional responses movements which are extremely disproportionate to a realistic possibility of falling. These children may avoid physical tasks, try to keep their feet on the ground, and become extremely upset with unexpected movements. Due to their unreliable relationship with gravity, their brains are wired to perform protective responses against the danger they perceive. These children may try to flee the situation, freeze and shut down, or fight and tantrum until the perceived danger subsides.
Children with vestibular sensitivities often have trouble tolerating the following activities:
- Car Rides:In a moving car, your child’s eyes (and inner ears) send messages to his or her brain that imply a moving body. However, feedback from the proprioceptive (body in space) system tells the child that he or she is sitting still. This disagreement between the sensory systems can cause children to feel uncomfortable, dizzy, or motion sick. Try “dimming” the intensity of the visual input to the brain by having the child wear sunglasses in the car, helping the vestibular system feel more at ease. If your child’s feet dangle from the car seat, try building up the floor of the car with heavy books or a foot stool. Having the feet planted on the floor provides feedback to the child’s brain that he or she is grounded to one spot. Using a weighted lap pad or blanket in the car can additionally provide calming sensory feedback to the nervous system. Be sure to take plenty of breaks to stretch, move, and feel the feet on firm ground during longer car rides!
- Stoller Rides: Hairs and fluids in the structure of the inner ear shift position with acceleration and deceleration, which provides intense vestibular stimulation. This starting and stopping is typical of stroller rides. However, the inner ear fluid stabilizes when speed is maintained. Initially, try pushing your child’s stroller at an even and steady pace, minimizing the number of times you start and stop moving. As your child becomes more accepting, try slowly increasing the number of gentle starts and stops per ride to build tolerance for vestibular changes.
- Playing on Swings: Swinging provides changes in head position that create a variety of intense vestibular input to the inner ear structures. Children who are unable to tolerate swinging may feel left out or lonely at the park. Start by watching videos and reading books where children are enjoying swings, pointing out that swings can be fun! Feel free to sit on the swing and demonstrate gently swinging at the park. Never force your child on a swing. Instead, gently encourage the child to explore the swings with your emotional support. Going to the park at a low-traffic time may help your child feel more comfortable. Start with swings that are low to the ground and encourage your child to sit on the swing using his or her own feet to walk forwards or backwards any amount. Provide plenty of positive feedback as they try new and more brave explorations. Share your pride in the child’s success, but try not to exaggerate reactions of fear or surprise if he or she tries something unexpected.
- Playing on Slides: For children with vestibular sensitivities, the mere thought of going to the park or using the slides can be anxiety provoking. You can ask your child’s OT to create a personalized story about going to the park, so your child knows what sensory experiences to expect. Start simple! Encourage your child just to be in the presence of a slide. Next, you can encourage the child to touch it by placing a preferred toy on the slide. Start exploring small “baby” slides before attempting big, bumpy, or spiral slides. Eventually, you and your child can sit on the slide together before sliding just a few inches to the bottom. Make sure these experiences are pleasant and reward baby steps with plenty of praise!
Natalie Machado, MS, OTR/L
Biel, L., & Peske, N. (2009). Raising a sensory smart child: The definitive handbook for helping your child with sensory processing issues. London, England: Penguin Books, Ltd.
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