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.
How does your balance system work?
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.
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 input: 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.
Vestibular system: Balance organs in the inner ear tell the brain about the movements and position of your head. There is a set of three tubes (semi-circular canals) in each ear, and these sense when you move your head around and help keep your vision clear. One canal senses up-and-down movement. Another canal senses side-to-side movement. The third canal senses tilting movements. Each canal has hair cells and fluid inside. When you move, the fluid and hair cells move. The hair cells send messages to your brain through the acoustic nerve. Your brain uses this information to help you know where you are in space. There are two further structures in each ear called otoliths (the utricle and saccule). They tell the brain when the head is moving in a straight line (when you are riding in a car or going up or down in an elevator) and sense the position of the head even when it is still (if it is upright or tilted).
Information from your vision, muscles, tendons, joints, and balance organs in your inner ear are all sent to the brain stem. The brain stem also gets information from other parts of the brain called the cerebellum and cerebral cortex, mostly about previous experiences that have affected your sense of balance. Your brain can control balance by using the information that is most important for a particular situation. For example, in the dark, when the information from your eyes is reduced or might not be accurate, your brain will use more information from your legs and your inner ear. If you are walking on a sandy beach during the day, the information coming from your legs and feet will be less reliable and your brain will use information from your visual and vestibular systems more.
Balance functions in our subconscious and we only become aware of it when it is not working correctly: dizziness brought on by a severe cold, sea sickness due to rough seas, air sickness as a plane banks in 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!
Balance and Children
The vestibular is the master of our movements, but it can only be properly trained through movement. For a child the development of the balance system is linked to the development of its postural control. As this comes from the visual, proprioceptive and motor systems the training of the systems along with the vestibular is a slow process which will take at least 7 years, and will continue through puberty. The process of balance maturation starts as soon as the baby is born. A baby is only able to hold its head up once it has developed some muscular strength gained through repeated movement opportunities in its first few months of life. The strength it has acquired in its neck, shoulders and arms is then used to combat the force of gravity.
For babies and children movement and repetition are vital to help their balance system develop so that even very complex movements become nearly automatic over a period of time (and this includes learning to sit still) For example, when a child is turning cartwheels in a park, impulses transmitted from the brain stem inform the cerebral cortex that this particular activity is appropriately accompanied by the sight of the park whirling in circles. With more practice, the brain learns to interpret a whirling visual field as normal during this type of body rotation and the child can become a cartwheeling expert!
At Baby College we recommend that parent’s use movement as part of their everyday play with their babies and children
Activities to try at home:
- Tummy time games
- knee rides,
- rocking chairs
Babies and children over one
- Playground fun: swings. roundabouts, see-saws
- Encouraging them to jump, skip, and walk along straight lines
- Running to and fro
- Starting and stopping
- Playing with hoops
- Rolling and cartwheels
We encourage many of these activities during our fun classes to help inspire our parents and encourage our babies and children