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  • Jane Erbe, OTR/L

Sensory Series: The Vestibular System

Welcome to my seven part sensory series. Today, I am going to talk about the sixth sense, and it has nothing to do with a Bruce Willis movie!  

In case you haven’t met me in person, I love nothing more than blowing everyone’s mind by telling them about the 7 senses!  You heard me right. Not 5, not 6, but 7! (Pssst … some would even say there are 8, but more about that later). Today we are talking about my favorite.

So let’s talk vestibular.  That’s right, say it with me … VES-TIB-U-LAR … (doesn’t just roll off the tongue, but it will)


In this sensory exploration series, I’m going to teach you about each of the sensory systems, what they do, and why it is so important you know about them.  I’ll even give you some good activities to do with your kids at home to strengthen these systems. No kids, no worries! Do them with yourself, your nieces, your nephews!  You’ll be that crazy aunt or uncle who says “VESTIBULAR” all the time!  

The vestibular system is located in your inner ear.  It is comprised of three fluid-filled tubes called semi-circular canals that detect any movement of the head, in any direction (hint, hint, the key word is direction).  Inside these canals are tiny little hairs that get displaced whenever the fluid moves.  Imagine if you are on a carnival ride: the fluid starts sloshing around, causing the hairs to bend in a certain direction, which sends signals up to the brain that the body is moving. Now imagine your child on a swing, being pushed back and forth.  If they were to close their eyes, their vestibular system would be able to detect if they were going back-and-forth, around in a circle, even how fast they were going. This is one of the important things the vestibular system does -- detects speed and direction.

Once the brain detects movement, a whole host of things may happen.  It may send out signals for the body to maintain its balance, so your child doesn’t fall out of the seat while swinging.  It may send out signals to help right the body again, after you’ve tripped over that curb you didn’t see while trying to send a text to your BFF.  It may even trigger a neurological response because the vestibular system and the visual system are getting mixed signals while you’re riding in a car or boat (say hello to my arch nemesis, sea sickness).  These are just a few of the things that the vestibular system does.  There is no end to the things that the body does with the information from the vestibular system (wait until I tell you how fidgeting is the vestibular system’s way of trying to pay attention -- fidgeting is functional).  

So why is it important for us all to understand this amazing system?  Because without it, our children wouldn’t be able to safely play on the playground, stand on one foot to put their pants on, or even sit still at circle time in school.  The vestibular system is the foundation for all of these activities (and more)!

But I have to break bad news to you.  Our children are growing up in a society that is anti-vestibular.  That’s right, you heard me.  We are living in a world that does not see the value of movement.  Think baby seats, limited floor-time, disappearing recess, increasing screen-time -- all pushing the vestibular system right out the door.  But it’s not too late! It’s never too late to put the focus back on movement to strengthen that vestibular system. You can start today.

When thinking about movement activities the key word is (I gave you a hint earlier) … DIRECTION.  We want our kids to be moving with their head in different directions.  Not just sitting or standing up, but laying down, on their sides, upside down.  All different directions stimulate those three semi-circular canals. In order to exercise that vestibular system, different directions are key.  Here are a few ways to get the ball (or vestibular system) rolling:

Spinning: Spinning around while standing, spinning on a sit-n-spin, spinning in an office chair, spinning curled up on your side, any kind of spinning is great for stimulating the vestibular system.  But keep in mind, spinning causes dizziness, and too much dizziness may lead to throwing up. So keep an eye on how much spinning your child is doing, but still allow him/her to do it.

Rolling: Neck rolls (yep, that’s right, simply rolling your head around on your neck in one direction, then the other, is great), log rolling across the room, rolling standing up along the wall.  Kids think this is so funny, but any kind of rolling is great.

Upside down: Downward dog in yoga, laying upside down on the couch, hanging upside down at the playground

Giving your child the opportunity to experience these types of movements throughout the day, everyday, will strengthen this system and build those higher level skills.

If you’d like more fun activities to do with your child that will stimulate the vestibular system, and probably have you both laughing at the same time, let me send you my list of 10 Simple Ways to Sneak in Vestibular Everyday.”  Your child will thank you.  Probably not today -- today they’ll yell at you for making them eat broccoli and not packing their favorite snack in their lunchbox.  But someday … someday … they will thank you.

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