The hid­den senses

Vestibu­lar and pro­pri­o­cep­tive sys­tems

Your Baby & Toddler - - Contents -

IF YOU IMAG­INE the body as a house, then the sen­sory sys­tem is the foun­da­tion. It is not vis­i­ble, but with­out a solid foun­da­tion cracks and prob­lems will oc­cur some­where else in the house.

The same ap­plies to the hu­man body: with­out ad­e­quate in­te­gra­tion of the senses, we will see dif­fi­cul­ties with motor co­or­di­nat­ing, fine motor skills, so­cial de­vel­op­ment and vis­ual per­cep­tion.

There are two lesser-known senses that need at­ten­tion in or­der to avoid a poor foun­da­tion: the vestibu­lar or move­ment sense and the pro­pri­o­cep­tive (mus­cle and joint feed­back) sys­tem.

The vestibu­lar, pro­pri­o­cep­tive and tac­tile sys­tems are key to our de­vel­op­ment. They work to­gether in pro­vid­ing us with feed­back about where our bod­ies are in space, the rate, speed and force of our move­ments and what we are feel­ing from the in­side and from the out­side in and on our bod­ies.

With­out this in­for­ma­tion we would be float­ing around un­aware of our move­ments, and un­able to plan and cor­rect move­ment se­quences.


The vestibu­lar sys­tem is in the in­ner ear and re­sponds to our head po­si­tion in space and against grav­ity. Ev­ery time we move our head to look up­side down, turn our heads, spin around or tip our head side to side we ac­ti­vate this sys­tem. This then sends neu­ro­log­i­cal path­ways to our brain to ac­ti­vate dif­fer­ent ar­eas and ini­ti­ate the fol­low­ing ar­eas of func­tion­ing: bal­ance, au­di­tory pro­cess­ing, eye move­ments, pos­tural con­trol and emo­tional well-be­ing.

Func­tion­ally, this sys­tem tells us if we are stand­ing or sit­ting, if we are up­right, up­side down or lean­ing. The vestibu­lar sys­tem has many in­ter­con­nec­tions with al­most ev­ery part of the brain, and there­fore ef­fec­tive vestibu­lar pro­cess­ing leads to good in­te­gra­tion of the senses, ap­pro­pri­ate gross and fine motor co­or­di­na­tion and higher or­der skills such as read­ing and emo­tional well-be­ing.

Func­tion­ally, we need to un­der­stand where we are in space in or­der to

un­der­stand the space around us. This be­comes the abil­ity for baby to crawl over, un­der, through and be­tween items and ob­jects. This sets up the abil­ity to know big­ger ver­sus smaller (“I can fit un­der the ta­ble be­cause I am smaller than the ta­ble”), which lays the foun­da­tion for math­e­mat­ics.

The abil­ity to plan in space is also im­por­tant, as nav­i­gat­ing your body through space cre­ates depth per­cep­tion and 3D space, which is the foun­da­tion for 2D space, such as work­ing on a page, do­ing puz­zles and build­ing Lego. This sys­tem starts de­vel­op­ing at around nine weeks in utero. This means that your baby re­ceives move­ment in­put from a very early age and ben­e­fits from such move­ment. Of­ten par­ents are fear­ful to move their ba­bies once they are born, how­ever a lack of move­ment can cause is­sues with sleep, achiev­ing a calm alert state and ap­pro­pri­ate gross motor de­vel­op­ment.

Vestibu­lar ac­tiv­i­ties should be joyful. Some chil­dren can how­ever be sen­si­tive to move­ment. We there­fore start with move­ment close to the mom or dad’s body and then in­crease to mov­ing away from mom and dad. Look out for the fol­low­ing signs that your baby is not happy with the move­ment: cry­ing, sweat­ing, in­creased heart rate, look­ing away, flushed cheeks. If these hap­pen, stop the move­ment ac­tiv­ity and fol­low with a big deep hug or mas­sage to calm the sen­sory sys­tems.

Move­ment in­put can ei­ther ac­ti­vate and alert ba­bies and tod­dlers, or it can be used to calm and or­gan­ise.


Pro­pri­o­cep­tion refers to sen­sory in­for­ma­tion we re­ceive di­rectly from our mus­cles, joints and skin about our own move­ment (rate, speed, force and tim­ing) and body po­si­tion in space. When we re­ceive ad­e­quate pro­pri­o­cep­tive in­put into our bod­ies, we are able to move with more co­or­di­na­tion and con­trol. With­out ef­fec­tive pro­pri­o­cep­tion in our hands, for ex­am­ple, we would not be able to but­ton our shirt with­out look­ing, or to hold a pen with ad­e­quate force and con­trol.

In utero, a baby re­ceives pro­pri­o­cep­tive in­put by push­ing against the uter­ine wall, and by be­ing sur­rounded by fluid. This con­stant deep pres­sure al­lowed for the baby to gain in­for­ma­tion about their body move­ments. When a baby is born, they lose this con­stant deep pres­sure and we there­fore need to pro­vide this to help them re­main calm, or­gan­ised and gain body in­for­ma­tion. This is one of the rea­sons we swaddle ba­bies. As a baby grows and de­vel­ops he will gain pro­pri­o­cep­tive through tummy time, crawl­ing, walk­ing and even­tu­ally move on to the tod­dler years of bounc­ing, jump­ing and crash­ing in to ev­ery­thing. When we see tod­dlers who are un­co­or­di­nated, clumsy, bump into things or have de­creased bal­ance, we of­ten sus­pect a pro­pri­o­cep­tive dif­fi­culty.

Pro­pri­o­cep­tion is used to calm and or­gan­ise the sen­sory sys­tems and can there­fore be used to calm a baby to sleep, and help them sus­tain sleep. It is also use­ful for help­ing tac­tile de­fen­sive ba­bies as we mas­sage their bod­ies, and in par­tic­u­lar hands and feet, be­fore ex­pos­ing them to var­i­ous tac­tile medi­ums.


The tac­tile sys­tem is the largest sen­sory sys­tem and it plays a vi­tal role in hu­man be­hav­iour, both phys­i­cal and men­tal. This sys­tem is the first to de­velop in utero and is fully func­tional be­fore the vis­ual and au­di­tory sys­tems are just be­gin­ning to de­velop. There­fore, tac­tile stim­u­la­tion is im­por­tant for over­all sen­sory func­tion­ing and well-be­ing. Touch is used for pro­tec­tion (tem­per­a­ture and pain) and dis­crim­i­na­tion (be­ing able to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween size, weight and tex­ture).

The more tac­tile ex­pe­ri­ences our ba­bies have, the more re­spon­sive and re­fined their touch sys­tem be­comes. There are so many op­por­tu­ni­ties for learn­ing with touch dur­ing ev­ery­day events such as bath, play, out­ings, play­ing out­doors and meal­times. As a baby grows and de­vel­ops she will use her hands for dif­fer­ent pur­poses. Al­low­ing chil­dren to ex­plore and ex­per­i­ment with their hands will al­low a bet­ter foun­da­tion for fine motor skills needed for func­tion and learn­ing later on. ● Young ba­bies suck and chew on their hands for com­fort. ● They look at and feel their hands as a way to self-soothe and ex­plore their own bod­ies. ● They even­tu­ally learn to grasp and re­lease and can ma­nip­u­late toys. ● They use their hands for feed­ing. ● They use their hands and fin­gers to poke, prod, touch, post, feel and ex­plore in or­der to learn. ● Even­tu­ally they use their hands to dress, write and cut.

For some, tac­tile in­put is a scary and


un­known ex­pe­ri­ence where they have neg­a­tive re­ac­tions such as fear, gag­ging, sweat­ing, in­creased heart rate and there­fore avoid­ance of touch in­put.

This can be brought on by seem­ingly fa­mil­iar and non-threat­en­ing touches such as dur­ing messy play or even touch­ing their own foods. This con­di­tion is known as tac­tile de­fen­sive­ness and has an im­pact on a child’s daily func­tion­ing and emo­tional state.

Tac­tile sen­si­tiv­ity in the hands is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with oral sen­sory de­fen­sive­ness, which will im­pact on a baby’s tran­si­tion­ing to solids and could cause gen­eral feed­ing dif­fi­cul­ties.

It is im­por­tant to sup­port these ba­bies and al­low them to go slowly and re­main com­fort­able and at ease.

The pro­pri­o­cep­tive sys­tem is help­ful in de­creas­ing tac­tile de­fen­sive­ness and should there­fore be used ev­ery two hours through­out the day in full body feed­back and spe­cific feed­back into the hands, such as mas­sage.

Some tips on pre­sent­ing messy play to chil­dren with tac­ti­cal sen­si­tiv­ity and de­fen­sive­ness: ✓ Light touch will be alert­ing while deep touch will be calm­ing. ✓ Rub the child’s hands and feet prior to ex­po­sure to tac­tile in­put. ✓ Pro­vide ex­po­sure to dry tex­tures be­fore wet tex­tures. ✓ As mom, you should stay neu­tral, or pos­i­tive, about the ex­pe­ri­ence and not say things such as, “This is gross,” as the child will pick up on this and then be hes­i­tant to try. ✓ When introducing solids, try not to purée food too smoothly and al­ways pro­vide some tex­ture and flavour di­ver­sity. Grad­u­ally in­crease the lumpi­ness of the foods you of­fer. ✓ Al­low baby to play with his or her food while feed­ing so that it is a fun ex­pe­ri­ence and baby tol­er­ates touch on the hands, which will en­cour­age tol­er­at­ing it in the mouth.


Our ev­ery­day en­vi­ron­ments and rou­tines should al­low for the vestibu­lar, pro­pri­o­cep­tive and tac­tile sys­tems to be ac­ti­vated and there­fore in­te­grated. But with fewer break­times at school and less free play for younger chil­dren, these sen­sory sys­tems are not be­ing ac­ti­vated enough in the 2010s. The im­pact from this is felt in ev­ery­thing from sleep and eat­ing to learn­ing and con­cen­tra­tion. YB

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