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      /  Development   /  The Vestibular System

    The Vestibular System

    The Vestibular System

    In OT and sensory integration, the vestibular system is often referred to as the ‘sixth sense’ or the ‘balance sense’. It is believed that is not considered a sense because you can’t see it, but does affect our balance as a being.

    So what is it? Situated very close to our auditory system, it is a structure, that is housed in our inner ear, made up by the urticle and saccule which processes linear movements the head against gravity and the semi-circular canals, which provide information and process rotational movements of the head against gravity… Around now, is the time I garuntee that you’re thinking about the last time that you were on a rollercoaster just to understand it? It basically gives our brains information about which way is up and down, and which way we are moving.

    Rollercoasters are usually such a thrill or terror, due to our vestibular systems being overwhelmed so severely in a short space of time. You would either smile and get off to tell the tale, or shower the people below you with the contents of your stomach, as your vestibular system struggles to regulate itself. A less dramatic representation, would be car or motion sickness.

    Regulation of the vestibular system basically means slowing down movements will provide the child, or you, with a calmer and better mood. It is in this respect, that it is sometimes suggested to modulate this system before bed, for an easier transition to sleeping.

    Challenges in the vestibular system may look like

    1. Poor ball skills
    2. Hyperactivity and distractibility
    3. Clumsiness
    4. Standing too close to others
    5. Letter reversals
    6. Difficulty maintaining their posture at a desk
    7. Difficulty tracking an object smoothly across the visual field
    8. Anxious when off the ground or on a moving object
    9. Fear of escalators, lifts, swings
    10. Avoids climbing or moving objects and jumping from a higher surface to a lower one

    Why does this happen?

    Most structures of the body in children are still developing and we need to provide the right play opportunities to assist in adequate development of said structures. the vestibular system has connections with the visual system, neck and spinal cord and various structures within the brain. Functions of the vestibular system include:

    1. Balance
    2. Emotional stability
    3. Self-confidence
    4. Bilateral skills
    5. Generation of muscle tine against gravity
    6. Head position and postural control
    7. Body awareness
    8. Eye muscle movements and visual tracking
    9. Rhythm and timing
    10. Spatial orientation

    How do I use this to calm me or my child down?

    In general, fast movements tend to be associated with alertness and restlessness.

    1. Rocking back and forth in a chair
    2. Gentle, slow stretches, especially of the back and neck
    3. Downward dog (most of yoga helps to calm the vestibular system)
    4. Slow rocking on a therapy ball
    5. Tuck & rock (bring your knees to your chest and hug them and gently rock from side to side and up and down)
    6. Rocking back and forth on all fours
    7. Animal walks, especially if the head is inverted
    8. Slow marching in a straight line
    9. Swinging back and forth (linear movement)

    An OT with additional training in sensory integration can help a child to develop their vestibular system and to integrate its processing along with all the other senses. An underdeveloped vestibular system will interfere with gross and fine motor development, as well as social play.

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