Our five senses—vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste—help us learn about and move through our world. But, did you know there are two more senses that we employ every day? They are called vestibular and proprioception.
The vestibular sense makes us aware of our head. It helps us determine its position, direction and speed at which it is moving. This information helps keep our head and body upright and aware of proper posture. When standing on the subway, the vestibular sense tells us when the train starts and stops in movement. It is our vestibular sense that tells us when we are upside down, sideways, or right side up on a roller coaster.
The proprioception sense is in the muscles, tendons and joints and makes us aware of our bodies. As adults, we use our proprioception sense to move our bodies in the dark to turn on a light, bend our legs to sit on the couch, and grasp a paper cup gently without crushing it.
For infants, learning the senses is important for discovering the world around them. When babies see the face of a parent, they smile. They coo when they hear a parent’s voice or pull away from something hot when they touch it. If babies smell something bad, they turn away. If they taste something good they desire more. Gently rocking a baby to sleep engages the vestibular sense much like swaddling a crying baby engages the proprioception sense.
The best way for babies to develop a healthy sensory system is to help them learn about their bodies. Here are a few ways to develop sensory skills:
POSITIONING: Babies need changes of position. Position changes help them learn how to hold their body up in different positions, use their muscles differently and interact with their world from a new viewpoint.
TUMMY TIME: Tummy time is a very important for helping babies learn about their senses and strengthen their muscles:
Using arms, tummy and legs to push up against gravity engages the proprioceptors.
Learning to feel the front of the body on a soft blanket helps babies learn about touch.
The blanket will provide some stimulation to smell (laundry detergent or baby powder).
Moving the head from side to side engages the vestibular sense.
Babies begin to look to parents or at the toys placed in front of them. At about 4-6 months, babies are able to work many senses together. They turn their heads to look when they hear something. They learn how to use their vestibular and proprioception senses to keep their bodies stable each time their head moves.
DIAPER CHANGING: Babies can also have fun sensory experiences during diaper changing. On her back, is the perfect time for a baby to make eye contact with a parent. A parent can gently touch the baby’s feet and bring them up near the face so the baby can see and feel her feet. A parent can rub lotion on the baby’s legs and hands, and a small circular rattle can be placed at the baby’s feet to help her learn to kick and make noise.
Jayne Emerson is an Occupational Therapist at Penfield Children’s Center.
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