Immature vestibular functioning is frequently found amongst children who have learning difficulties, emotional problems and panic disorders.
There is so much talk about brain development these days and how motor development in babies and children is a sign of intellectual development. It is crucial to the wellbeing of our children to recognise how the brain and nervous system develops and how dysfunction can impact on learning and development.
Let’s first start with brain development. The brain grows at an amazing rate during development. At birth, almost all the neurons that the brain will ever need are present, however the brain continues to grow for a few years after birth. By age 2, the brain is about 80% the size of an adult. What we know is that early experiences impact the development of the brain and influence the specific way in which the circuits of the brain become “wired”. The outside world shapes the brain development, and the baby learns through their five senses.
What also shapes development is the birth process and this very much relates to neck control. If the baby has spent a long time in breech position or head down or required the use of forceps or suction during delivery, all of these factors do impact on their little necks, and can be one of the reasons as to why babies may not like tummy time.
To survive, babies are equipped with a set of primitive reflexes designed to insure immediate response to this new environment and to his changing needs. Primitive reflexes are automatic, stereotyped movements directed from the brain stem and executed without cortical involvement. Primitive reflexes should only have a limited life span and if these primitive reflexes remain active beyond 6-12 months of life, they are considered abnormal and evidence of structural or immaturity within the central nervous system. (Goddard, 2005)
Balance is one of the core functioning systems in the body. It is the first system to be fully developed and becomes operational at 16 weeks in utero and then these myelinate at birth. It is developed so early to help with gravity during the birth process and beyond. The vestibular system operates closely with the primitive reflexes to facilitate balance. Signals pass from the vestibular system in the inner ear to the cerebellum. The cerebellum is required for balance and it is now understood, that it helps coordinate learning and behaviour as well as being the gatekeeper for communication with other parts of the brain.
Ensuring that primitive reflexes have integrated properly and switched off at the key developmental stages is vital for an optimal functioning vestibular system to allow for integration into school and beyond.
Signs & Symptoms that might indicate balance problems:
- Baby was in breech presentation
- Delay in achieving head control and other developmental milestones including; sitting, crawling, walking
- Poorly developed muscle tone
- Frequent falls
- Avoidance or fear of movement
- Clumsiness, dropping or knocking things over
- No fear in heights (under active vestibular)
- Excessive fear of heights (over-active vestibular)
- Excessive rocking or spinning
- Poorly developed sense of body image
- Motion sickness in an 8 year old
- Difficulty learning to ride a bike
- Poor balance
- Difficulty in staying still
- Poor organisational skills in the older child
- Delayed motor development
- Easily disorientated
Recognising these babies with slower motor development early on has an impact to help them for a lifetime. Motor development is the first part of the brain to mature, and the rest follows. If the vestibular system is lacking, this has the potential to effect learning and speech/language, which is required for entry into school. With the increasing use of interventions including forceps and vacuum at birth, in conjunction with the increasing rate of C-section, this significantly impacts on spinal development, especially the cervical spine. This relates to poor tummy time, delayed rolling, crawling and walking. A baby who is late to walk will also be late to talk. Being proactive earlier is important for optimal development.
If you have any concerns about the development of your baby or child, contact your health care provider.