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The Vestibular System in Babies

August 2, 2020

I am sure we can all recall a time when either we were told to sit still and pay attention or perhaps someone else you knew was. It is often thought that a children choose to fidget instead of paying attention, whereas actually it is the vestibular system at work trying to help them work out how to do what is being asked of them.

The vestibular system is our internal balance system that detects motion and gravity. It is the first sensory system to start to develop at around 16 weeks after conception. It coordinates all the other senses, especially the eyes, to help us to get upright and stay upright.

vestibular system in babies

It is located in the inner ear and mid range region of the brain. Inside the ear are semicircular canals that contain cilia - tiny little hairs with minuscule nerve endings. The cilia are covered in fluid which, like water in a glass, washes back and forth in response to body movements. When the body moves the fluid coaxes the cilia to stand upright which stimulates the nerve endings. This sends information to the brain about what the body needs to do to find, maintain or regain balance.

It remains important throughout our whole lives, although we only really become aware of it when we start to lose our balance. Young children spend their lives trying to turn themselves upside down and they do it because it feels good and it stimulates this system. It takes at least seven years for this system to develop fully and children need constant stimulation even beyond this and into adolescence.

vestibular system in babies

What does it do?

Balance underpins everything we do. Think of trying to do things like ride a bike, read a book, eat your lunch without it. If you were worrying about maintaining your balance all of the time it would be hard to concentrate on anything else. Therefore the development and automation of this system plays a huge part in children’s overall development.

The vestibular system controls the five major aspects of everyday living: posture. balance. alertness, concentration and stillness


From the moment they are born most babies have an incredibly strong inner drive to get moving and stand up, which involves almost every muscle in the body. In the first year a child’s muscle develops strength and stamina, the brain works out how to harmonise the reflexes and muscles movements into controlled coordinated action. In the mean time the vestibular system is familiarising the brain with the sensation of movement to develop orientation, stability and balance. Only when all of these come together can baby actually start to get up on two legs


Whether we’re on the move or sitting still the vestibular system is constantly at work keeping us balanced. The only way to learn balance is through movement - all different kinds all of the time. 

This is because movement constantly challenges the brain to adjust and record it’s understanding of what it feels like to be on and off balance. And when the brain understands this it can adapt to the changing circumstances and help to stop us from falling over. A baby or child with an immature balance system may be prone to car sickness or may appear clumsy in their movements.


Think of what it feels like as you start to fall off a chair. Your brain kicks into action and instantly sends instructions to the muscles which jerk to attention. Your body reacts without you having to think about it. This is your body working in coordination with your reticular activation system (RAS - the system which signals to the brain that everything else needs to shut down and this needs immediate attention). This system also comes into play during activities such as reading, listening, problem solving etc and sometimes you can see it at work, in the form of fidgeting. Often children will fidget because they are trying to concentrate. When concentrating on complex tasks the brain can become tired and start to switch off. The RAS kicks into action causing the child to fidget to try to wake the brain up.


We all know that sitting still is a big challenge for little ones and most adults view it as a choice as opposed to a biological need. Sitting still requires a great deal of vestibular maturity, which is developed through movement. Insisting a child sits still can lead to a feeling of failure in the child and frustration on both parts. 

vestibular system in babies

Why is it important?

A well developed vestibular system can have a huge impact on our physical, cognitive, emotional and social skills

  • It can contribute to mental well-being by helping us to feel secure in our bodies.
  • It makes everyday tasks much easier. Think of trying to put on a pair of trousers if you struggle to stand on one leg.
  • It coordinates movements of the head and eyes, which supports visual tracking for reading and writing.
  • It works with the proprioceptive system to control your baby’s muscle and muscle development. The more mature your baby’s vestibular system becomes the more muscle tone they will develop which will help them to eventually sit still and sit properly instead of slouching at their desks.
  • It supports language development by integrating the visual and auditory senses.
  • It helps to co-ordinate the two sides of your baby’s body so that they are able to learn how to crawl, clap their hands together, catch a ball or ride a bike and become more independent.

How can we help babies and children to develop their vestibular system?

  • Ensure they have opportunities to move in such a way multiple times a day and in a variety of ways.
  • Encourage them to move in  ways that involve twisting, rolling, turning, spinning, rocking, swinging, tilting, wobbling and falling.
  • Encourage them to move at different speeds. Doing movements slowly helps the brain to absorb and assimilate the physical sensations. Doing them fast stimulates adrenaline and feels good.
  • Let them lead but suggest alternatives if appropriate. A child who does not like hanging upside down from bars may happily read upside down.
  • Respect their reaction to input which stimulates the vestibular system and be on hand to assist them as needed.

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