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Supporting Your Child?s Sensory Development At Home, Part Two: The ?Hidden? Senses by Lynn-Marie Herlihy, MS, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist

By November 3, 2011Blog

In the previous entry, we discussed three developing senses with which most parents are quite familiar (visual, auditory and tactile). Today, we'll look at the two hidden senses most people never even think about, the vestibular sense and the proprioceptive sense. These senses can impact a child's acquisition of many higher-level skills as they mature.

Vestibular System

Definition: This is a system located in the inner ear. It gives us our sense of spatial awareness, controls balance, and assists with movement. By providing information about the position and movement of the head in relation to gravity, the vestibular system lets us know the speed and direction of our movements. For example, if your body is falling to the side, the vestibular system registers the movement of the head and sends signals to activate the muscle groups we need to maintain balance.

Infants: You probably already know and have discovered the positive effects of the typical movements that babies enjoy: gentle, rhythmic rocking and swinging. This can be very organizing to a fussy baby. In addition to baby swings that can be used inside the home, infants often enjoy being pushed in a stroller, riding in a car (in a car seat), or being gently swung in a blanket with mom and dad holding the ends. Once head control is firming established, gentle bouncing on your lap, lifting the baby overhead, and slow, safe inversion (tilting baby upside down over your lap), can all help this sense mature. If your baby dislikes being laid down for diaper changes, try putting her down on her belly first (so that she feels more grounded) then turn her over to her back for the diaper or clothing change. Some babies may feel like they are “falling” and startle and cry with diaper changes if they are laid down too quickly.

Preschool: Kids in this age group are all about challenging their own vestibular systems! Provide lots of opportunities for your preschooler to explore playground equipment (swings, slides, merry-go-rounds), spinning toys (Sit and Spin, scooter boards), and rocking (rocking toys, glider chair). You ve probably noticed that many children will also seek out this input themselves, through just plain rolling around or twirling in circles. To an adult whose vestibular system becomes less efficient with age, it can be hard to watch all that spinning…but know that it is good for their developing understanding of their body and how it moves. (Note: excessive self-stimulating such as spinning can indicate a sensory disorder).

School age: Many children at his age continue to crave intense vestibular input, and enjoy input such as amusement park rides, roller coasters, bike riding, skiing/snow boarding, and skate boarding. If your child wants to be “on the go” when it’s time to sit quietly (for example, mealtime, homework, or a long car trip), it can be helpful to provide some strong vestibular input prior to the upcoming stationary time. Swinging, bike riding, playing hopscotch, or using a slide can all provide the desired input, if you can get outside. In the home, you could provide a small trampoline (or allow jumping on the bed with an adult present), do jumping jacks, use a hippity hop, or have them use an exercise ball for bouncing. Some children have increased attention for seated work if they can get periodic movement during the task. Sitting on an exercise ball or using a movement cushion can help during this time. Here are examples of products that may be helpful:
Ball chair:

Proprioceptive System

Definition: This sense can be simplified as body awareness . Receptors in our muscles, joints, and tendons send the brain information about the location of the limbs and overall body position. It also tells us how much force to use for a particular task. For example, even if your eyes were closed, you would know if I raised your hand over your head. You also know too much force to use to lift a full can of soda (but imagine what it feels like when the can you thought was full is actually empty!)

Infants: One of the main ways we give a baby early information about their body is through the ancient practice of swaddling. Yes, it is calming to a fussy baby and helps them sleep. Yes, it recreates the womb space and makes them feel safe. But, it is also providing their growing nervous system with valuable information and feedback about this little body that they are just getting used to. The tightness of swaddling is a type of deep pressure input to the body and limbs, that helps the brain learn about this new body of theirs, in a very calming, organizing way. Another way to provide this input (and also calm a baby) is a gently vibrating seat. Many are commercially available and include noise and lights to entertain as well. As your child ages, he/she might enjoy getting extra input from you in the form of massage or gentle “tapping” over the arms, legs, hands and feet. Try singing a song like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”, or rhyme like “This little piggy”…but expand both to include other body parts.

Preschool: Playground equipment where she can climb on, crawl under, or hang on will give great heavy work input to her body that helps develop this system. In the house, you can do wheelbarrow walking or play “tug-o-war” with a towel or blanket. Taking the cushions off the couch and setting up obstacle courses around the house where she needs to crawl over or through, then get up and jump over or balance on, then roll under and out, etc. Adjusting her body and her movement as she goes through the obstacle course will help her gain better control over muscles and the amount of force she needs to use. And it's fun!

School age: Try games like Twister, or Simon Says , focusing on the concept of left and right, and having her cross the midline of the body (i.e., Simon says put your right hand on your left ear ). Having your child do household chores, such as sweeping, carrying groceries, and washing the table or floor. Cooking is another great activity, since the mixing, stirring, rolling, and kneading are all “heavy work” for the hands.

The neurological process that interprets sensations from the body and its environment is called Sensory Integration. The brain s ability to process sensory information makes it possible to use the body effectively within any given environment. The quick screening checklist below will help you assess your child's sensory development.

If you answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, your child may be experiencing difficulties with sensory integration:

*Was your child unusually fussy, difficult to console, or easily startled as an infant
*Is your child over-sensitive to stimulation Does he/she over-react to touch, taste, sounds, or odors
*Does your child strongly dislike baths, haircuts, or nail cutting (screaming, crying, “melting down”)
*Does your child use too much force when handling objects, coloring, writing, or interacting with siblings or pets
*Does your child seem to have weak muscles Does she tire easily Does she prefer to lean on people or slump in a chair
*Was your baby slow to roll over, creep, sit, stand, or walk, or to achieve other motor milestones
*Is your child clumsy (Does she fall frequently, bump into furniture or people, and have trouble judging position of body in relation to surrounding space).
*Does your child have difficulty following instructions or sequencing the steps for an activity
*Does your child avoid playground activities, physical education class, and/or sports
*Does he/she not enjoy age-appropriate motor activities such as jumping, swinging, climbing, drawing, cutting, assembling puzzles, or writing

Check out Kids Health website for further information on the development of senses, as well as other great information:

For further information on Sensory Integration and for children diagnosed (or suspected) of a Sensory Processing Disorder:


If your child is experiencing difficulty with any of these areas of development, please contact your pediatrician and/or an Occupational Therapist to assess if there is an underlying problem. Children develop at their own pace, with a wide range of normal regarding skill acquisition. If he/she has difficulty in several areas of sensory development, it may indicate a Sensory Integration Dysfunction.

Lynn-Marie Herlihy is an Occupational Therapist in private practice in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She has over 12 years experience treating children from birth to school-age, with a variety of sensory and motor deficits, developmental delays, and learning issues. You can also visit her website at

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