November 19, 2008

Calm Down with Your Sixth Sense

Ever wonder why yoga is so calming for babies, kids, and grown ups alike? Did you know that motion without touch is more soothing than touch without motion for an infant (touch and motion together are the ideal)? Or that in one study, babies who were held and spun around in an office chair demonstrated much faster reflex and motor development than babies who were not? Ever been on a meditation retreat? If so, have you noticed how many adults, when they silently sit with their own thoughts, begin to rock or sway to self-soothe?

Now that our whole family is feeling better, I am finally getting to one of my favorite subjects - vestibular motion!!! I know, as favorite subjects go, this one might be a bit strange, but I'm fascinated. From one one of my favorite books on child development, What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life:
From the moment of birth, children love the sensation of motion. Whether it's rocking, jiggling, bouncing, or just being carried around the house, babies find great comfort in the feeling of repetitive motion, and older children love to be spun, swung, or flipped upside down. The reason they are so receptive to motion is because they are born with a highly developed vestibular system - a "sixth" sense that allows us to perceive our body's movement and degree of balance. The vestibular senses are very old, in evolutionary terms, since all earthly organisms have had to orient themselves with respect to gravity and their own motion. Accordingly, they emerge quite early during embryonic development. Like touch, the vestibular system is precociously poised to transmit sensation that is not only very comforting for babies but also critical to their early development.
Surprisingly, vestibular stimulation makes important contributions to motor development, and deficiencies in the vestibular system are linked to emotional problems, perceptual or attention deficits, learning disabilities, language disorders, and autism. While not the sole cause of these disorders, balance and motion make a big difference for little ones. And infants who are born prematurely gain weight faster, are less irritable, breathe more regularly, move less jerkily, sleep more, and spend more time in a quiet, alert state when they are swayed, bounced, rocked, carried and spun.

Early vestibular stimulation provides a building block for the development of other sensory and motor abilities. And although the vestibular system's sensitivity peaks between six and eight months, as one of our most primitive senses, it remains available as a fast lane to calm.

Spinning, jumping, or moving to an upside down position has an immediately calming effect on children and grown ups alike. In my yoga classes for kids, I suggest poses to parents (like down dog, headstand, and spinning around or jumping up and down) that are particularly effective for averting an oncoming tantrum - but when my husband and I remember to try them ourselves, we always realize that they are just as effective for averting big people tantrums as they are for pint-sized ones!

Photo Credit: gemsling (flckr)

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