Vestibular Needs are Different for Each Child

My heart dropped as I saw my son’s face change from happiness to pure fear as he began his first swing on a life size swing set.  He loved his little baby swing indoors, and I was excited to let him experience the real swing.  As he swung back, his face was curious, as he swung forward, it was immediately overwhelming to him.  He didn’t start to cry… yet, so I let him continue for a few more swings, and his face continued to change expressions, from curiosity to fear, exactly the same way with each swing.  If I didn’t feel so bad about his fearful face, I would have thought it was funny.  I quickly removed him.  On the other hand, after his first experience with hammocking in a Kindermusik class, he could not seem to get enough of this side to side motion.  Over time, with more exposure given at the right level for him, he learned to enjoy swinging, even swinging very high, and many other physically intense activities.

Then there’s the case with my second child: my daughter took to the swing with enthusiasm and joyous abandon, even as a very young baby.  She couldn’t seem to get enough.  As a baby, she needed me to dance with her, rock her, and have more physical attention than my son ever did. It seemed exhausting at the time.  At 8 years old, she still runs to the swing set almost every day, or spends time jumping on the trampoline.  She swings and jumps as high as she can, and seems to think it is the most glorious feeling in the world.  She almost requires it to keep her attitude in balance.

What makes the difference?  Why do some children need more intense physical experiences, and some children need less?  Does that mean there is something wrong with either one of them?

Be assured, nothing is wrong.  But, as a parent, understanding the Vestibular System is the key to answering these questions, and for knowing how to effectively approach each child.  This excerpt, from “I Have A Vestibular System?” is just a brief, but great introduction, written by Miss Analiisa of Studio 3 Music.   It is followed by a link to a fabulous website with a huge amount of ideas and pictures for ways to play with your child that activates their vestibular system !

First to develop.
The vestibular system is the first to develop in the womb. At just two weeks after conception, it starts to form, and by 4 ½ months it has begun operating. Throughout gestation, this system gets constant stimulation from the mother’s movements. This early development means it has many connections with the rest of the brain, which results in everything else developing around and integrating with it. The vestibular system continues to be very active through the first 15 months.

What is it?
The vestibular system is made up of several structures in the inner ear. When the head tilts in any direction, fluid moves small hairs in the inner ear, and their movement lets us know our orientation in space. (Are we upside down? Leaning? Standing straight?) The vestibular system also tells us how fast we are moving, the direction we are going, and helps us keep our balance.

It coordinates information from the inner ear, eyes, muscles and joints, fingertips, and feet. The vestibular system also adjusts heart rate, blood pressure, limb position, nervous system arousal, and immune responses.

Of the 8 senses, the vestibular system has the greatest effect on our ability to function in everyday life. This very important system is used when we read, hear, speak, touch, balance, and move.

What happens when it isn’t working properly?  A child with vestibular system issues may have problems with balance and body control, and may seem clumsy. Problems may also manifest themselves as a child that needs to move all the time (rocking, jumping, humming, banging). The child is innately trying to stimulate and regulate their vestibular system.

Other children are fearful of movement because it is frightening; they need both feet firmly planted on the ground to feel safe. When their vestibular system under-responds to movement they sometimes panic. These children might not like swings, slides, floating in water, having their head tipped back, being tossed in the air, or jumping on the trampoline.

Later in life some of these children won’t like people in their personal space and may become agressive when someone gets “too close”.  Someone in their personal space scares them, as they don’t have a good sense of where their own bodies are.

Rocking is great for the vestibular system !

Why we move.
Humans have an innate need to regulate themselves through vestibular stimulation. Everyone’s level of need for movement is unique and individual. There is no “normal”. People need vestibular stimulation for both calming and arousing.  Babies are calmed by a rocking chair or a gentle back and forth motion, just like an adult on a porch swing…this is what it feels like to calm yourself using your vestibular system.  Or, if you have ever been sitting for too long and are itching to get up after a long plane ride; that is how it feels to want for the arousing effects of the vestibular system.

Children generally want and need more vestibular stimulation than adults do.  This is why we spin, lift, throw our children and they love it.  That is also why so many toys are developed to spin, whirl and jostle kids around!  Every child has a different “recipe” for the perfect amount of vestibular input. Some need stronger, more intense movements to satisfy them. For others, gentle rocking suffices.  Whichever, there is no question that children respond well and are more successful when they have a balance of play activities that meet their sensory cravings.

What can I do to stimulate my child’s vestibular system?
So, now you understand a little bit more about the vestibular system. In your Kindermusik class, we rock, roll, swing, dance, twirl, take basket rides, hammock, bounce and jump. You can do all of these things at home.

Here is a list of other ideas that either stimulate or calm your child’s vestibular system:
• Swings, merry-go-round, see-saw, and other playground equipment
• Sit-n-spin
• Bouncing in your lap, on large ball, trampoline, or on a hippity-hop
• Jumping, rolling, spinning
• Swinging in hammock or bed sheet
• Rocking in rocking chair
• Dancing
• Running, skipping, galloping
• Wagon rides, toy ride-ons, scooter board (laying on your tummy)

 

Tree-swing is great, but be careful of your back.

So… watch your child’s face as you swing them, even when just swinging them with your hands.   What does your child need?  Do they thrive on as much strength as you can give them, and you realize they need this movement regularly throughout the day?  Or is it important to start slow, and build up their vestibular system through gradual increases.

The awesome pictures here are from a WONDERFUL set of articles on the different ways to play with your child which activates their vestibular system.  I am so impressed with the explanations and pictures on 19 pages of vestibular fun with your child.  I’ve done most all of them all with my children, but never put it together like this !  I highly recommend reviewing all  aspects of this website: Parenting with Family Play.We’ll have fun exploring a variety of vestibular play in our babies and family Kindermusik classes this week.

PLEASE SHARE:   What level of stimulation works best for your child?    When can you tell that your child is over-stimulated?  What kind of swinging does your child like best?  How might your parenting techniques change with this information?

One comment

  1. Amy Foltz /

    Logan loves to swing and Mya loves to dance, which work wonders for their vestibular systems. Usually when Logan stops swinging the swing, he is losing interest and over-stimulated and Mya will start becoming clingy, which indicates over-stimulation. As a parent, I learn to adapt to each of their personalities and “go with the flow.”

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