Thursday Tips Senses Series: Our Vestibular Sense And The Balance Of Eating

chocolate girl on a swingFeeling balanced at the table is the first step to being able to focus on, learn about and try new foods and our sense of balance is provided by our vestibular system. This system, connected to our inner ear, tells us whether we’re sitting upright, hanging upside down on the monkey bars, going up in an elevator, moving forward in a car or swinging on a swing.

The vestibular system is made up of canals or tubes filled with fluid and it’s able to give our brains all of this information about our balance and movement by registering how the liquid is sloshing in the canals. It then turns that movement into an electrical signal that’s taken to our brain by the vestibular nerve. Any time we’re trying to keep our balance the liquid is sloshing and our brains are sending signals to our muscles to help us keep our balance.

Our vestibular sense is hugely important to how we use our bodies in all activities and becomes really important for eating when we think about sitting down to eat and keeping our balance in our chair. In Melanie Potock’s article How The Inner Ear Helps Kids Try New Foods she explains really nicely how important stable seating is to being able to focus on the actual task of eating.

A teacher of mine in grad school also put it in a really lovely, simple way. She taught that, ‘all mobility comes from stability,’ meaning we have to have a stable base under us to be able to move anything above that base. That means that to be able to move our hands to feed ourselves and our jaw to chew, all the parts of our body below our head need to be stable. The best way we can make sure a child’s body is stable and ready to eat is to move up the body and make sure every part of their base is stable on the way up.

First we make sure their feet are stable with a footrest at the right height that they can press down into. This could be a traditional footrest on a highchair or phonebooks or a box stacked under their feet, so long as the whole bottoms of their feet can reach it and press into it to form a stable base.

Moving up the body, next the hips have to be stable to create a stable base for the trunk, arms and shoulders. This may mean using towels to take up the extra room in a seat or putting a non-stick mat under a child’s bottom so they don’t slide around. Because if their hips are sliding all over the place, their brains will be spending most of their energy focusing on staying balanced and that doesn’t leave a whole lot of attention for the delicious, new foods you’re wanting them to focus on, learn about, and try!

Next we need to have a stable trunk and stable shoulders to be able to move our arms to feed ourselves and provide a stable base for our neck and jaw. A backrest at a close-to 90 degree angle will provide the support needed so kids don’t need to use their trunk muscles to constantly regain balance while eating. It’s important for a child’s back to be able to rest against the backrest while maintaining stability in the feet and hips, this may mean propping towels or another place-holder behind them, if they’re in a chair they have to grow into.

With stable feet, hips, trunk and shoulders a child is set up for success and is ready to focus on playing, tasting and eating!

The vestibular sense continues to affect eating and mealtimes any time our head tilts and the sensory receptors in our ears need to sense and communicate those positional changes. This happens when we tilt our head back to take a sip, when we reach across the table to grab the salt, pepper, etc…. Our vestibular sense is truly with us every step and movement, helping us stay upright and keep our balance!

On a food play note, I had so much fun painting with chocolate to make the girl on the swing in the picture above! Just melt any chocolate (I used chocolate chips) in a double boiler, paint the chocolate onto wax paper or parchment paper and put it in the fridge to dry. What a fun way to play with a delicious puree and then the cooled, meltable chocolate shapes you make!

Have fun and happy food play!

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6 thoughts on “Thursday Tips Senses Series: Our Vestibular Sense And The Balance Of Eating

  1. Interesting. I never thought how much the vestibular system plays into being able to eat stress free. and less. and more focused. It is simple and makes perfect sense though. I’ll have to pay attention when Carson sits down to eat tonight and see if I can identify some improvements we can make to allow him to be more focused while eating. He definitely has vestibular challenges. Part of his initial OT was using a dizzy disk to attempt to spin him. His vestibular system was so hypo sensitive it was impossible for him to get dizzy at first.

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    1. Stable positioning makes such a huge difference for all kids and especially kids with vestibular challenges! I’m so glad this post was helpful for you! Good luck with the adjustments tonight–often things we have around the house work wonders as kids grow so fast and often need to grow into different chairs. Also the nonstick padding you can buy in rolls is amazingly versatile for seating or for keeping makeshift footrests from slipping under the table. 🙂

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  2. This is very interesting to me as I have one child who we constantly have to remind to sit with her feet below the table. Her most comfortable position at our table (which are benches rather than chairs…which I see isn’t the best scenario?) is on her haunches on the bench. And she’s a picky eater. She complains she’s dizzy when she goes to sleep at night. After bloodwork, all came back normal. This article has made me think…thanks for posting, and for stopping by the blog!

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    1. I’m so glad you found it thought-provoking and helpful! You might try giving her something stable under her feet at the bench for mealtimes. Also, if you’re concerned about her vestibular sense an occupational therapist would be able to evaluate her sensitivity and possibly offer strategies. And, the senses series will continue this week on the Learn To Love Food blog with an overview of how a different sense affects our eating every Thursday for the next few months 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. I wish I had been able to read all of this when some of our children were small. We have so many special needs in our children, including Asperger’s, ADHD, sensitivity issues, etc. Many of them have eating issues. However, most of those are grown and gone! Still, it’s very interesting to read and may help the remaining few I still have at home.

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    1. I’m so glad you’re finding it interesting! While the activities are geared towards younger children, the idea of using the senses to explore foods and gain comfort through repeated experiences and exposure to new foods in pressure-free environments can apply to children of all ages as well as adults. Thanks for reading! 🙂

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