Our senses are so important for us for any kind of development. It is so vital for us to use all senses in order to improve in aspects and develop and acquire skills. Even as adults we rely greatly on our senses – not just one or two, but all of them combined, to do most of our everyday activities, and especially the new or novel tasks. Many of us don’t actually know that we have 7 different types of senses. We learn about the common 5 – sight, smell, touch, taste and sound. But those other two? That's what I'm here to tell you about.
These senses are as follows:
Sense number 6 – Proprioception
This is something you use in motor skills. It is the ability of your muscles and joints to send signals to your brain, describing what you are doing (whether the muscle is relaxing or contracting, flexing or extending, how the ligaments are working and overall movement). This input is constantly happening, but you are more aware of it at times than at others. This sense allows you to feel the floor when taking a step, and to know what pressure is required based on the surface you are standing on. A child who does not have a well developed ability to process this, will often compensate by stomping or jumping harder than necessary, dragging feet, and will seem to not know their body boundaries too well.
This is a sense that goes well with the ability to sense touch – but works from deeper within the muscles and joints, where touch receptors are more localised in the superficial skin layers. This sense helps us to coordinate and control our movements, because it allows us to understand where our limbs are in relation to our body, and to know what they are doing. It also allows the brain to identify the need for muscle development and strengthening in the areas of higher demand.
If you close your eyes, get someone to take your foot, and move it in certain directions, each time asking you to tell them where and how they moved your foot – you would be able to tell them, right? Your proprioceptive input is what allows for this to happen. When explained this way, Im sure you can see just how important this is. However, imagine an unstable, unsupported joint with weak muscles. Would one be able to make sense of movements that happen with these? It is much more difficult, since you are also trying to focus on keeping your body upright and movements controlled.
So why is this important in my baby? Well for starters, he does not have a body scheme or the ability to know his body boundaries yet. He has low muscle tone and weak joints. But we put his body into weight bearing positions and place pressure on the joints regardless, when we know he is clearly not ready? And being a sense – it is quite easy to over-stimulate and overwhelm him because of that. He is not only processing the world, but also those bright colors, loud noises, funny smells, soft blanket and all that movement happening. It is very easy to overwhelm him and we end up doing it all too easily.
We also tend to take some positions for granted. Take tummy time, for example. Your baby first needs to learn to prop himself up onto his forearms, and then push his body up by straightening his arms. The only sense allowing him to understand and control this is his proprioception. Later on, he will be able to climb a ladder or catch a ball, without having to think about where his arms should be and when. He will already understand his physical boundaries and muscle movements. A movement like rolling is giving him enough proprioceptive input at this stage - we take it for granted but he is doing it because that is all his body can handle right now. If it could process the information and handle the pressure from birth, he would be born and start walking straight away. It develops with time. Putting him in positions and devices he is not yet ready for physically, only negatively affects the ability to process this sense too.
So how do we develop the ability to process proprioception in our children? The most important thing to remember is natural movement. We are born with our limbs kicking and arms flailing, and the second a slight resistance is placed on those movements, we start to learn more and more about them. It is therefore essential to allow your baby to move as much as possible through his normal ranges. Swaddle blankets are also ways in which we have pressure on our limbs and develop proprioception. Standing, weight bearing through the legs, arms, even forearms, helps to develop this sense. It becomes very limiting when movement is not free or natural and is limited to smaller ranges – which is exactly what happens when a baby is placed in most entertainment stations – a swing, a bouncer, an exersaucer, a Bumbo, even a car seat or carrier.
The best thing for them at this stage is an activity gym, no matter whether it’s tummy time, side lying, or playing on his back, his kicking and pushing and movement is not limited to certain movements or ranges. Standing and being supported. Sitting and being supported. All help to allow movement and sensory input through the body. When he is older, a ball-pit or sand-pit will be useful in identifying body boundaries too. Let them move!
And then we have our last sense:
Sense number 7 – the Vestibular system
This is a very complex sense that again comes from deeper within, so complex that it is a whole system. Inside of our ears, we have tiny granule-type organs that are able to move as the head moves and tilts. When these move, a signal is transmitted to the brain that tells us how the head is situated in relation to the space around it as well as to the rest of the body. Pretty incredible, right?
It is quite an advanced sensory input that takes years for us to learn to appropriately process, but works to help us balance and to coordinate movement. Most of us have already started developing this sense with our children without actually realizing it. Swings, rockers and car rides all have motion to them and enable the development of this sense. This is why we easily overwhelm a baby when moving and playing with him too much, or changing movements too rapidly. A crying baby will almost never soothe if you chop and change from bouncing to rocking to swinging in the space of a few minutes. Each time you change a motion, he has to process it and understand what it is you are doing, before he can actually be soothed by it.
The key? Consistency and timing. Doing one motion repeatedly until he calms before trying another is best, and when changing motions, keeping him still for a rest period in-between. What we might see as soothing and calming, is a new and overwhelming sensory input to a baby. It is also not recommended to tilt your baby so that his head is below his body or upside down, because of just how overwhelming a sense this can be!
It is important to develop this sensory system, but cautiously and with time. Your baby needs natural movement as well, to develop this. Something like rolling over moves the head and tells him something is happening and his body position is changing. Babies who are big enough thrive from time outside at the park because this sense develops well with the swing, round-about, see-saw and slide. Movement is everything, the more free and natural, the better. Limiting him to a confined space and position is only limiting his ability to understand his body and his movements, and therefore his ability to improve these.
My recommendation is this:
Be aware of the movement and position of your child. Look at where his body is receiving pressure, and where he is able to move and how he is able to move. If you see things blocking his ability to move, you see something holding back his ability to develop. Try limit time spent in chairs or bouncers. Let your child lie on his side, back, tummy, let him stand on you, roll him across the bed, gently swing him, bounce him on a ball. Teach him about the movements and watch his face as he feels them. Don't limit his ability to explore with a movement or motion by distracting him with a big shiny toy. Encourage his movement by not carrying him all the time, and when he is old enough, challenge him to fetch toys and to move as much as he physically can. Placing a toy in his hand to play with provides very little opportunity to learn and develop.
Be aware of all of his senses so that you know when he has had enough and is over-stimulated. Make a big deal out of a movement by verbalizing things “wow, look at you standing!”, “now we are bouncing, up and down, up and down!” which helps him to learn the concept of the movement. It’s all about playing with him and letting him play on his own, no limits and no restrictions! He who moves most, learns most!