Imagine learning to stand for the first time, but everything around you appears to move. You can’t stabilize your gaze and everything sort of spins. Now imagine learning to walk for the first time, except you can’t focus on an object for balance. Either would be tough for anyone, especially a child.
That ability to focus your sight – That’s what’s called your vestibular system – and it’s not a part of your eye. It’s actually in your inner ear. It plays a large role in balance, telling you where your head is in space. In turn, your body responds to what you vestibular system is telling you.
But the vestibular system also plays a part in stabilizing your gaze. Try looking at an object in the room. While keeping the object in focus, shake your head from left to right – are you a little dizzy? Maybe… But were you able to keep that object in focus? Probably. That’s because, while you were shaking your head from side to side, your vestibular system was communicating with little muscles around your eye, telling them to respond, which allows you to keep your focus (known as the vestibular ocular reflex, or VOR).
And if you weren’t able to keep the object in focus? Well, it makes balance and development that much more difficult.
What could be a sign that your child’s vestibular system isn’t working properly? Some children may have trouble standing without holding onto a surface, and even fall when standing at a table without reacting to the fall (think of a falling tree). Others may have trouble walking without holding on to an adult or surface, with a tendency to rely too heavily on that support, at times appearing as an impulsive movement.
If you notice or are concerned about your child’s vestibular function, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your child’s pediatrician. They can make a good assessment or help refer you to a specialist.