The Vestibular Sense and its Development

Although it is true that there are five basic senses – taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing – the whole truth is actually more nuanced. There are, in fact, three lesser known senses: proprioceptive sense, interoceptive sense and vestibular sense.

In short, each of these can be summarised in the following way:

  • Proprioceptive sense: our ability to sense the position and movement of our limbs and body; the sense of effort, the sense of force and the sense of weight.
  • Interoceptive sense: our ability to feel, recognise and understand what’s going on inside our bodies – for example, our appetites and internal thermostats.
  • Vestibular sense: our awareness of our body’s balance and movement – for example, the sensations of body rotation and of gravitation.

All of these three “lesser” senses are important and work to together to help us understand our body’s position in space, to process the world around us, to regulate our needs and emotions and, in short, to do nothing less than place us usefully and truthfully in the physical world. In this piece we take a look at the vestibular sense and how we can encourage its development in children.

The vestibular sense

The vestibular system is the first sensory system to develop in the womb. In fact, by the time the fetus is five months old it is already well developed.

Once a child is born, the vestibular system helps process and relay all sensory information from the various parts of the body and pass them onto the appropriate sensory regions of our brain.

Inevitably, a functioning vestibular system plays a vital role in the development of a confident and secure child.

On a more granular level, a good vestibular system does the following:

  • Assists visual tracking
  • Assists head-eye coordination
  • Assists muscular development
  • Assists linguistic development
  • Assists the development of independence skills
  • Assists emotional and physical self-regulation
  • Assists the development of good balance

As you can see, the vestibular system is essential to the body’s development and is akin to its internal GPS system. A large part of its function relates to the ear. For example, every time a person moves, inner ear fluid activates sensors inside the ear. Together with data from the other senses, this helps us understand our position in space.

Children who suffer from dysregulation of their vestibular system can find it difficult to be balanced and coordinated and as a consequence may become fearful or impulsive, hypersensitive or hypo-sensitive. Furthermore, these children may become excessively dizzy with mild spinning or experience no dizziness at all with extreme spinning.

How to help develop the vestibular system

The more your child moves, the more likely it is to stimulate and develop its vestibular system. From tummy time, to rolling, sitting and swinging, all movement, whether it is independent or assisted by you, will help.

It is useful to dance with your baby, to rock your baby, to bounce her and indeed to play any kind of physical game with her. Once she is older, she can be encouraged to play sports, to climb trees and playground equipment and to do cartwheels and other forms of exercise – any activity which inverts us is particularly beneficial, including the yoga pose downward dog.

In the event that your child has some dysregulation of the vestibular system – for example, they may be clumsy, have poor balance or have difficulty orienting themselves – it may be necessary to see a specialist and to create a “sensory diet” for your child. A sensory diet is a treatment plan that can help children with sensory processing issues and is usually comprised of a series of physical activities that are tailored to promote your child’s vestibular development.

One thing is certain, the importance of the vestibular system may often be underestimated or overlooked but once you educate yourself about it, you have the power to act in the interests of your child.