As soon as your little one enters the world, they begin building skills. From lifting their head to sitting up and then walking to jumping, your child’s body and mind are hard at work in their first few years of life.
As a parent, you want to help them reach new heights and grow their skills. But what exactly can you do to help them meet their developmental milestones?
The best way you can help is to learn exactly what’s happening in that tiny body of theirs. What’s going on inside as they take in the world around them. Once you dig into the amazing and fascinating science of childhood, you can provide them with the best environment to build and hone their skills.
Today we’re shedding light on the little-known sixth sense that your child develops early in life — the vestibular system. So, what’s the vestibular system and how does it fit into the bigger child development puzzle? Let’s explore!
What is the vestibular system?
The vestibular system lives deep within your skull, consisting primarily of the vestibular nerve and the semi-circular canal structures of your inner ear. It’s these tiny parts of your ear that allow you to move through your day with balance and coordination.
The vestibular system is actually the first sense your child develops. Even though your child’s vestibular system continues to mature from birth to adolescence, a lot of the work is done in utero. While your child was in the womb, they were processing mom’s movements. And by five months’ gestation, your child’s vestibular system is humming away.
How does the vestibular system work?
It may sound a bit odd, but you can thank the tiny hairs in your ears for your graceful movements. These hairs help process spatial sensory input — some hairs process vertical movement and others, horizontal.
Then your ear hairs send information via the vestibular nerve to your eyes and down your spinal cord. This messaging helps you orient yourself in space and self-correct anything that feels off-balance.
The input processed by our vestibular systems helps with:
- Ability to pay attention
- Behavior and impulsivity
But it starts for your child at the most basic levels — helping them discern up from down. Your child’s vestibular system is essential in helping them learn to lift their head and look around. And this movement and positioning helps them to develop their sense of space and movement even more.
These early milestones happen so quickly and naturally that, before you know it, your now preschooler is jumping around, climbing, and swinging. All thanks to the balance and spatial awareness they first started developing while still connected to mom.
13 ways to help your child develop their vestibular system
Your child will choose to work on these skills naturally. It’s an integral part of learning how to crawl, walk, run, and jump. But there are a few ways you can help stimulate your child’s vestibular system to help them reach their developmental milestones.
Remember, every child develops at their own pace. But if you see your child struggling with (or even just really enjoying) spatial sensory input, try these activities to give their sensory learning a boost.
For infants 0 to 6 months
Young babies (and older ones too) love a soothing rocking motion. It reminds them of being in the womb, gently swaying and floating around.
There are several ways to keep your baby rocking throughout the day:
- Keep them close to you in a baby sling and wear your baby as you run errands or complete household chores
- Put them in a motorized baby swing and lull them into a gentle sleep
- Try a wooden rocker with a cushy pillow — this is a great piece of play equipment that your child will love now and through their elementary years
No matter how you choose to rock your child, they’ll be gaining valuable sensory input, setting the foundation for future milestones.
Some babies love it, others hate it, but even a little bit of tummy time can help your child develop their vestibular system. Since babies spend most of their time on their backs, being flipped over requires a whole new orientation.
As they become more comfortable on their tummy and gain the ability to lift their head, they’ll soon discover the power of movement. And that is an exciting time!
If your child is not a fan of tummy time, keep the time on their back more productive by giving them plenty to see.
A moving mobile can help your young baby practice focusing on objects. Or invest in a Pikler triangle — a beautiful wooden piece that grows with your child. At this age, you can hang toys from the rungs, or create a soothing tent as they drift off after a full day of sensory play.
For infants 7 to 12 months
Sitting up requires a lot of balance and “righting reactions” — further developing your child’s vestibular system. Once your child is sitting up well, add an extra challenge by hanging toys from the rungs of a climbing triangle. This reaching and grabbing is exactly the kind of sensory input your child needs.
Now that your child has a handle on neck control, help them get more comfortable having their feet off the floor. This will prepare them for the hanging challenges of their toddler years.
To do this activity, lay your child on their stomach across the top of a yoga ball. Keep your hands securely on them as you rock them back and forth. If your child loves this sensation, do it often and encourage them to start reaching for the ground. It’s a thrilling feeling for a young child.
If your child isn’t a fan of rinsing their hair, it may help to practice leaning their head back throughout the day.
This inverted feeling can disorient young children, leading to big reactions. While you’re playing throughout the day, find fun ways to help them practice inversions. You can lay them on their backs across a yoga ball or a flipped-over rocker, letting their bodies naturally follow the curve.
Even just a little bit of practice can help your child’s vestibular system develop, resulting in more comfort with inverted positions.
As your child approaches their first year, their urge to move grows. Although crawling and walking happen at different times for every child, during this stage you can still encourage plenty of exploration.
Flip over a rocker or set up your climbing triangle to give your child options for crawling through and under. These are also great play pieces for encouraging pulling up and cruising. Every part of their crawling to walking journey helps them build the motor and sensory skills they need to get moving.
Even though your child has outgrown their baby swing, they still love a good rocking motion. Help your child find their happy place with a wooden rocker.
They can rock themselve while sitting or standing. Or you can give them a hand and rock their new favorite boat out to a beautiful, blue imaginary sea. Rocking is a great way to help them improve their balance, coordination, and emotional regulation.
When you’re a toddler, hanging with your feet off the ground is a big deal. Your child has just gotten used to walking, and they likely don’t feel very secure, even with both feet on the ground.
Encourage your child to take safe risks and grow their sensory skills with a climbing triangle. These structures are great for developing hand-eye coordination and hanging — providing important vestibular input all the while. Bonus — they’re a lot of fun too!
Ramps are the perfect structure for vestibular sensory input because they give plenty of occasions for “righting” your body. Depending on your child’s comfort level, they can crawl or walk up and down ramps, using opposing muscles as they play. Even better, a ramp can turn into a slide — creating big thrills for small sensory seekers.
Preschoolers need to move. It’s the way they learn and grow their skills. If your child has mastered the above skills, try setting up an obstacle course for a bigger challenge.
Use a rocker for climbing over or crawling under. Try some balancing beams and ramps to build their core (and provide some excellent sensory input). Then challenge them to climb up and over a triangle. Jump, skip, climb, crawl, run — your preschooler is guaranteed to love the challenge!
This is a great activity to activate your child’s vestibular nerve. Your preschooler is a pro at walking and running now. This activity is a fun way to challenge their body and mind to work in a new way. So pick up their feet and get them walking on those hands!
Remember those inversions in infancy? These actions are still important as your child grows. Head out to the playground and encourage them to swing from the monkey bars or on the rungs of their climber. Then ask them to try it upside down (like a fruit bat)!
The sensation may feel weird to them at first. But the more they practice, the more they develop their vestibular system and skills. So keep that upside down fun going!
The vestibular system is so important in your child’s early development. And now you know exactly what to do to help your child advance it.
Does your kiddo seem behind on their sensory and motor skill milestones? Remember, every child develops different skills at different times. But if you have any concerns, bring them up with your pediatrician. They can refer you to a specialist, like an OT, for an evaluation and extra help.
This article was written in collaboration with our resident Occupational Therapist Jessica Ahdout — Portal MA OTR/L. Have a question for our OTs? Let us know in the comments!