Your baby’s balance system is very important to their overall neurological and physical development and we at Baby College are very aware of its importance and the problems that children can face with an immature balance system.
What is your vestibular and balance system?
The body’s vestibular system along with our vision and proprioceptive system, work with each other to form our balance system.
Vestibular: is the dominant balance system. The organs of the vestibular are found within the inner ear. It is made up of three semi-circular tubes (or canals) set at right angles to each other. Movement is detected by the motion of the fluid within these tubes; they act like three spirit levels within the body, and impulses are sent to the brain so that we are aware of our body within space.
Visual System: Your vision helps you see where your head and body are in relationship to the world around you and to sense motion between you and your environment.
Proprioceptive System: Special sensors sensitive to stretch or pressure in your muscles, tendons, and joints help your brain to know how your feet and legs are positioned compared to the ground and how your head is positioned compared to your chest and shoulders. Proprioception is often referred to as your sixth sense.
Your balance system helps you stand, walk, run, and move without falling. Your eyes, inner ear, and muscles and joints send signals to your brain. These signals help you stay balanced. This system of signals is your vestibular system.
Why is it important?
The body’s vestibular along with the ocular system (eyes) and proprioceptive system, work with each other to form our balance system. It’s through a well-developed balance system that we are able to combat the forces of gravity and are able to sit up, hold our heads still, walk, run, jump and without which we would spend our days flopping helplessly on the floor like a jellyfish!
A baby’s vestibular is developed in utero by five months and they spend the next four months exercising it whilst they are being rocked to and fro inside their mother’s womb. The vestibular sense (which is an intrinsic sense) is our dominant sense and was one of the earliest senses to develop in our evolution. It is used to process information received by all our other senses and is, therefore, extremely important for overall well-being.
As a baby grows and their vestibular and proprioceptive systems develop, they are more able to cope with the forces of gravity, lift their head off the ground, sit unaided, stand by themselves etc. They also become more aware of living in a three dimensional world. An important development for a baby, and for the rest of our lives, is that our vestibular allows us to recognise and decide if it is us who is moving or the object, vehicle etc. that we are looking at that is moving.
The vestibular controls four areas which are important for your baby’s development:
1. Head and Eyes
The vestibular and eyes work together to co-ordinate your baby’s head and eyes. This enables your baby to watch and track a moving object; it will allow your child to look up at a whiteboard and back down at their books with ease; your young child will be able to track along a straight line and thus be able to learn how to read.
The vestibular works with the proprioceptive system to control your baby’s muscle and muscle development. The more mature your baby’s vestibular system becomes the more muscle tone they will develop. They will eventually learn how to sit still. A child who is secure in his balance is a confident child, and his body language conveys this. There are social implications for the child who does not appear confident.
3. Balance and equilibrium
Quite simply, your vestibular system keeps you standing up and stops you from falling over. Signals from your vestibular and proprioceptive systems (plus visual information) react to stimuli and let your brain know what is happening to you. Balance functions in our subconscious, and we only become aware of it when it is not working correctly; perhaps when the plane you are on banks for landing. These problems occur when there is a breakdown in communication between the three systems. Nausea occurs because the body mistakes these symptoms for those of having been poisoned! A baby or child with an immature balance system may be prone to car sickness or may appear clumsy in their movements.
4. Symmetry and Co-ordination
Your vestibular helps to co-ordinate the two sides of your baby’s body so that they are able to learn how to crawl, clap their hands together, catch a ball or ride a bike.
So, it can be seen that the vestibular is the master of our movements, but it can only be properly trained through movement. For babies and children movement and repetition are vital to help the balance system develop so that even very complex movements become nearly automatic over a period of time. For example, when a child is rolling down a hill, impulses transmitted to their brain (cerebral cortex) that rolling will be accompanied by the sight of the hill and sky whirling in circles. With more practise, the brain learns to interpret a whirling visual field as normal during this type of body rotation and the child can become a rolling expert!
At Baby College we recommend that parents use movement as part of their everyday play with their babies and children and within our classes we have lots of activities to help your child’s vestibular develop including spinning and dancing.