Vestibular System & Vestibular Sense In Children: Explained

A child playing outdoors. A girl hanging upside down on a swing.
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Do you know a child who enjoys swinging all day long – whether they are out on the playground or swinging on their chair in the classroom, they just LOVE swinging. This child is probably a vestibular craver. A vestibular craver is someone who craves vestibular input.

On the other side of the spectrum, do you know a child who is super scared of swings, climbing on the playground, and is super anxious when they are moving from sitting to standing? This child probably has trouble with their vestibular sense and has gravitational insecurity.

I know what you’re thinking… So what is this vestibular thing you keep talking about?

Do not worry. In this article, we will cover all of these terms. But before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s find out what is vestibular processing, the importance of the vestibular system, and what activities to do to help our children integrate their vestibular processing system.

What is the Vestibular Sense?

Little girl doing handstand on field in city

Vestibular processing (or vestibular sense) is our body’s ability to recognize our head position with respect to the surface of the earth (Kranowitz, 2005). In other words, the vestibular sense is our balance and movement sense. And our vestibular system allows us to maintain balance through day-to-day movement activities. Some people know of this as spatial orientation or body awareness but ultimately all body movements involve the vestibular system to balance their body’s position.

The Inner Ear

The vestibular system is reliant on the inner ear. In the inner ear, there are hair cells that act as receptors for our vestibular sense. Even the slightest movement in our head position is detected by these vestibular receptors and deciphered as vestibular input.

That’s why sometimes when people have ear infections, you can see that there may be changes in their balance. Because their vestibular system relies on the receptors within their inner ear.

Our Sensory Systems

Child earing icecream in living room

Our central nervous system (i.e. brain and spinal cord) processes information received from outside our body (e.g. visual, sound, touch, taste, and smell senses) and information received within the body (i.e. proprioception, vestibular, and interoception).

Our sensory systems allow us to understand our environment and respond to it accordingly. For example, if we hear a loud noise, we will turn to see where that noise came from and see if we need to attend to it immediately or not. This is reliant on our auditory system.

Similarly, our vestibular system allows us to understand the environment and respond to it accordingly.

Importance of Our Vestibular System

Sisters Reading Book Upside Down

The vestibular system is fundamental in building the basic relationship between a person and their physical environment. The vestibular system, when it is well-integrated, allows us to tell the difference between:

  • If their bodies are upright or not
  • If they are moving or being still
  • What direction they are going
  • How fast they are going (Kranowitz, 2005).

When an individual has a well-integrated vestibular sensory system, this means they are able to recognize all these movements. It allows us to understand the physical environment around us and interact with it accordingly.

When you spin around in circles in one direction very fast for 10 seconds, do you get dizzy? This is your vestibular system working well.

Types of Vestibular Dysfunction

happy child playing at a playground.

There are different types of vestibular dysfunctions. Here we will talk about the differences between these categories.

Vestibular Overresponsivity

Vestibular over-responsivity is when the child is overloaded by the vestibular input. There are two types of vestibular over-responsivity, one is intolerance to movement and the other is gravitational insecurity.

Intolerance to Movement

Intolerance to Movement is when the child is overloaded by the vestibular input. Simple movements like walking or riding in the back seat of a car can become distressing. Other movements like playing on the swing or slides that require fast changes in movement or balance, can be even more distressing.

Although these children may want to participate in these playground activities, chasing after others, climbing over climbing frames, going down slides and swings, can be very difficult for them.

Gravitation Insecurity

Children with Gravitational Insecurity is also be overloaded by the vestibular input.

The vestibular system uses gravity to help us make sense of the world. Some children with poor development of their vestibular sense, may not feel comfortable when their feet leave the ground. We call this Gravitational Insecurity.

These children may have a negative response to falling or the possibility of falling. They may not like being moved or needing to move quickly. Children with this constant fear can demonstrate behaviors making it hard to make friends with other children who have seemingly good balance.

Vestibular Underresponsibility

A child may be underresponsive to the movement which means they may not notice it.

These children are not familiar with the sensation of falling and sometimes may recognise it too late. This may lead to many trips and bruises. These children require additional vestibular input (e.g. 10 minutes on the swing) to get them going.

Vestibular Input Craving

These children constantly want more vestibular input. They have a very high tolerance for movement and try to seek more of this vestibular input throughout the day.

They may enjoy being upside-down, doing cartwheels and somersaults, and rollercoasters. When sitting on the swing or slide, they may want to do it more and for longer. You may also see some of these children just spinning around constantly.

Symptoms of Vestibular Dysfunction

Difficulty with vestibular input means the child may have difficulty processing information about gravity, balance and movement through space (Kranowitz, 2005).

Depending on the type of vestibular dysfunction, symptoms may look different. Now we have learned about the different types of vestibular dysfunction, let’s look at the symptoms of each of them.

Intolerance for Movement

  • Avoids movement or move slowly
  • Gets carsick
  • Looks uncoordinated
  • Dislike playground equipment and obstacle course
  • Looks uncomfortable on lifts and elevators

Gravitational Insecurity

  • Constantly scared of falling
  • Scared of heights
  • Does not like feet leaving the ground
  • Worried with other people move her
  • Does not like head tilted, like when washing hair

Vestibular Underesponsiveness

  • Does not appear to notice movement
  • Lack of motivation to move
  • Once started, can keep swinging without getting dizzy
  • Slow to notice that they have started falling

Vestibular Craver

  • Enjoys spinning
  • Appears to be a risk-taker and loves to be hanging upside-down
  • Appears “on the go” constantly
  • Does not get dizzy even after lots of spinning around

Activities to Help Improve Vestibular Sense

There is a range of activities that you can do to help your child develop their vestibular processing so they have a well-integrated sensory system.

These vestibular activities include:

  • Playing on the swings (tire swing or playground swings)
  • Rocking Chair or rocking horse
  • Swinging on the monkey bars
  • Going down slides
  • Rocking back and forward
  • Do obstacle courses where they need to climb under and over objects
  • Run, jump, skip
  • Do cartwheels

If you still have concerns about your child’s vestibular system or other sensory systems, please talk to an Occupational Therapist. An Occupational Therapist can help you evaluate your child’s sensory processing and provide strategies to help improve these sensory systems.

References

Kranowitz, C. (2005). The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

O’Brien, J., Kuhaneck, H., & Ball, B. (2020). Case-Smith’s Occupational Therapy for Children and Adolescents. St. Louis, Missouri: Elsevier.

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