Sensory Processing challenges aren’t usually detected or treated until preschool or beyond, but healthy sensory processing skills develop much earlier in life – starting in the womb! How can we as parents help promote healthy vestibular processing in infants when diaper changes and sleeping through the night are top priorities?
Did you know that an unborn baby’s vestibular system is what helps him turn head down in preparation for birth? Let’s take a look at how one of the least recognized and understood sensory systems, the Vestibular System develops in babyhood and how you can help!
What is vestibular processing?
Simply put, the Vestibular System tells us about our head position related to gravity (which way is up?). It plays a vital role in allowing us to safely move, pay attention, sit still and maintain an appropriate level of alertness for our daily activities. As the therapists at The Inspired Treehouse explain, the vestibular sense contributes to our sense of confidence and security in the world.
Promoting healthy vestibular processing:
1. Have an active pregnancy.
Because vestibular processing begins in utero, mommy’s movements during pregnancy promote healthy development. You don’t have to train for a marathon while growing a baby; gentle activities like walking, swimming, and yoga are great ways give your baby a variety of movement sensations. Whatever you do, resist the temptation to get sedentary when pregnant.
Consult with your doctor before trying new activities during pregnancy.
2. Cope with bed rest.
Clinically, we see a correlation between extended bed rest during pregnancy and increased risk of vestibular processing challenges in children. What can you do if your doctor prescribes bed rest?
Ask your doctor about the safety of slow rocking in a rocking chair, glider or swing. Discuss position changes that you can safely make throughout the day – laying on each side, bending forward at the edge of the bed so that your belly hangs, sitting upright.
3. Offer baby a variety of positions in play.
Play for infants can start the first week of life and primarily consists of experiencing the world through the senses while stretching and strengthening out of the fetal position. Even when just laying on a blanket, your little one is actually taking in loads of sensory information and trying to make sense of this new world she’s in.
Place your baby in a variety of positions – on her back, in Tummy Time, and laying on each side – during awake time. These positions allow your baby to experience different head positions relative to gravity – promoting Vestibular System development!
Baby swings, infant car seat carriers, bouncy seats, and other baby positioners hold baby’s head in effectively the same semi-reclined position relative to gravity. I recommend limiting your baby’s total time in Baby Holding Devices to an average of 2 hours or less per day (including car travel in the car seat).
4. Be intentional with babywearing and holding.
Until they can roll and sit up, young babies are dependent on adults for their movement experiences. One of the easiest ways to help your baby learn about movement is to hold or wear him as you move.
Make a point to carry your baby as you move around the house or yard getting things done. Dance with your baby to music. Play gentle rocking games on your lap. Hold your baby in a variety of positions – upright, belly-down, laying on each side, and belly-up.
Always offer adequate head support and keep movements gentle for very young babies.
There are oodles of different baby wearing carriers, wraps and slings available. It may take trying a few to find one that works well for you and your infant. A local babywearing group or an online babywearing community can offer tips and support.
5. Don’t forfeit movement for convenience.
Allowing your baby to experience movement and position changes of every day life, such as getting into and out of the car seat on errands, gives her opportunities to refine her sensory processing and self-regulation skills in response to vestibular input.
Self-regulation is the ability to match your alertness level to the environment and the task at hand. Through her earliest movements experiences, your baby will learn that vestibular input isn’t cause for alarm or distress. As she gets older, she learns that position changes signal a time to be awake and alert to take in a new place. It would be convenient if our 10-month-old babies slept through weekly grocery trips in a car seat carrier, but it wouldn’t be a sign of healthy developing self-regulation skills. Once baby can sit up, sitting upright in a stroller or shopping cart or being worn are great ways to let her actively engage all of her senses on outings.
By being aware of the importance of early movement and position changes for vestibular development, we can take simple steps from the start that can make a big impact on our babies’ lifelong sensory processing skills.
Looking for ways to play with baby?
Rachel Coley, MS, OT/L is the pediatric Occupational Therapist, mommy and child development nerd behind CanDo Kiddo. Through her blog and books, she helps fellow parents confidently and playfully give their babies the healthiest start possible. Connect with Rachel on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.