The vestibular system is one of the more powerful senses in the body (10-20 minutes of intense vestibular input can have effects for up to 8 hours!). So what actually happens in your body when given vestibular input?
First, we have to look inside your ear.
You have three canals in your ear, all filled with fluid. Each fluid-filled canal is responsible for letting your brain know where your head is in space. A great explanation of how your sense of balance works can be found here. There’s also a strong connection between the vestibular system and the visual system. If one system is not working properly, it can affect the other. A more detailed description of this connection can be found here.
When it comes to the vestibular system, there are two types of movement that activate it: rotary (spinning) and linear (swaying forward/back or side to side). Depending on the person, either one could be calming or alerting. Generally speaking, rotary is most commonly alerting, while linear movement is calming. For example, rocking a baby to sleep vs. going for a spin in the teacups at Disneyland. If vestibular input is too intense, or too alerting, combining the activity with some kind of proprioceptive input is a good rule of thumb to help regulate.
What does sensory processing look like with an underdeveloped vestibular system?
For someone who is over-responsive, they might exhibit sensory-avoiding behaviors: rarely moving, afraid of playgrounds, dislikes being upside down, or on their back or stomach, clumsy, afraid to take both feet off the ground.
For someone who is under-responsive, they would show sensory-seeking behaviors: spinning for long period of time without getting dizzy, frequently moving, rocking, wiggling.
When it comes to activities that promote vestibular processing from a young age, play is crucial. Swinging, going up and down slides, hanging from the monkey bars, see-saws, anything that gets their head in different positions. If you can incorporate some kind of proprioceptive input, even better.
If you have any concerns about your child’s sensory processing, contact an OT near you.