originally written for and published on Harkla.co
THE VESTIBULAR SENSE
While most people know about the five senses, the sense of movement (or vestibular sense) is unfamiliar to most parents. The vestibular sense gives a child information about where their body is in space, if they’re moving or still, how quickly they’re moving, and in what direction. If you read our article on vestibular input, you know how important this sense is to one’s overall development. From the time they are in utero, kids’ bodies and brains are developing from the movements they experience!
Vestibular receptors are located in your inner ear and are activated by the fluid in the ear canals moving as you move. This allows your brain to detect changes in head position to know whether you are moving with or against gravity. These receptors give your body information on where you are in space so you can be safe while navigating through your environment.
From infancy through adulthood, vestibular information contributes to the development of muscle tone, righting reactions, balance, postural security, eye movements, and overall alertness. If your child has vestibular processing dysfunction, you may observe difficulties in any of these areas, question your child’s safety on playground equipment, or notice general avoidance of movement-based activities.
SENSORY SWINGS FOR VESTIBULAR INPUT
If your child goes to a sensory clinic environment for occupational therapy services, you’ve likely seen your OT use a therapeutic swing for many different activities! If you are looking to support your child’s sensory skills at home, consider investing in an indoor sensory swing.
Ideally, a therapy or sensory swing allows for rotational movement (in all directions) as well as linear movement (back and forth, side to side). Some swings even have a vertical component that allow for up/down bouncing as you swing! Consult your child’s occupational therapist for which movement is best suited for your child’s individual vestibular needs.
THE MANY BENEFITS OF SENSORY SWINGS
Swings provide vestibular input. We know that the vestibular sense informs body awareness, safety, muscle tone, balance, and coordination...those are already some amazing benefits to therapeutic swinging!
If you’re looking to support your child with specific types of vestibular input, swings can help you find that just-right match that your OT may be advising. Different types of swings target specific vestibular receptors through different movement patterns: vertical- up/down, linear- side/side, and rotary - all directions. That’s just talking about the movement of the swing itself - - when kids swing in different positions (sitting, laying upside down, laying on their belly), the movement can activate different vestibular receptors.
Swings can challenge core strength, balance, righting reactions, and motor skills in different ways, depending on the design you choose. Using swings within therapeutic activities can build these skills in novel, fun ways. For example, you may choose a platform-style swing to challenge balance in a seated position or swing and throw beanbags to a target to help with visual motor coordination, timing, and righting reactions. Use that same swing to lay on your belly and hold yourself up against gravity to complete an inset puzzle while propped up on strong arms. Same swing, totally different activity and skills!
Some swings allow for combined vestibular input like this Frog Swing or this Moon Ball Swing. Sometimes you can simply add a vertical stimulation device to turn your favorite swing into a combined input swing. Some kids tolerate combined-input swings better because of the additional proprioceptive input.
The addition of a rotational safety device such as this one from Southpaw can turn any swing into a spinning swing with movement possible in all directions. Add-on accessories like the rotational and vertical stimulation devices can allow for more novelty in home sensory diet activities and also meet therapeutic goals for vestibular input.
Did you know that 15 minutes of swinging can have effects on the brain for up to 6-8 hours!? While this is a benefit for kids who need more intensity of vestibular input, it is important to remember that long lasting effects don’t always mean beneficial effects if your child is easily overstimulated! Consult your occupational therapist to better understand how to monitor and include spinning in controlled doses.
Swings allow for varied intensity of movement that may be needed for kids who under-respond or over-respond to vestibular input. The ability to meet individualized movement needs depends on the type of swing you choose: rotary swinging and inverted or upside down movement is the most intense! Linear movement (like jumping or bouncing) is the most tolerated vestibular input because it combines proprioceptive input as well. Predictable, rhythmic swinging promotes calm and organization while unpredictable, arhythmic swinging is alerting.
The vestibular system is closely linked to the visual system, so improvements (or deficits) in processing are often noticed in both areas. It is common to address visual processing issues with a vestibular or movement component because we use functional vision while our bodies move to inform our body awareness. Sensory swings challenge and develop the functional use of vision by allowing the use of vision to see while moving, or give kids the option of being completely immersed in a swing and eliminating visual feedback. Harkla’s pod swing is an example of a swing that can be used with or without vision.
Sensory swings can support sensory diet planning for self-regulation purposes. Whether the intention of your sensory diet is to calm and reorganize, or alert and stimulate, there is a sensory swing that can meet your child’s needs.
Your vestibular system supports your body awareness, coordination, balance, and visual skills from birth through adulthood. Some children do not process this sensory information appropriately and require therapeutic supports to help them make sense of movement. A therapeutic sensory swing is a wonderfully functional and fun addition to your home sensory tool box. Installing a sensory swing in your home can be as simple as finding a spare doorway, setting up a pop-up tripod stand, or recruiting a handy friend to drill into a ceiling beam. For more information on swing installation, check out Southpaw Enterprises. With consultation from your child’s occupational therapist, you can choose a sensory swing that meets your child’s individual needs for vestibular stimulation or a combination of sensory systems to promote regulation.