Free Guide | The Top 10 Vestibular Exercises For Your Child

Introduction

The vestibular system is found in our inner ear, and its job is to interpret movement. It helps us to know whether we are moving or not, how fast we’re moving and in what direction. 

Although often misunderstood, a well developed vestibular system is vital for your child’s health. This is particularly true for children with Motor Delay, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Auditory Processing Disorders (APD). Children with these conditions often have altered sensitivity to vestibular input. 
In this article, you’ll learn all about the vestibular system and what it’s used for. We’ll discuss signs and symptoms that may indicate an imbalanced vestibular system in your child, and how to improve that with a range of vestibular exercises. We’ll explore how to practice these exercises safely, and we’ll describe 10 of the best vestibular input activities in detail.

Key Take-Away Messages

What are vestibular exercises for children with Autism, ADHD and APD?
Vestibular exercises stimulate the vestibular system, which helps us to know whether we are still or moving, and which direction we are moving in. They are particularly important for children with Autism, ADHD and APD, as children with these conditions are oversensitive or under sensitive to movement.

It’s important to proceed with caution when starting vestibular exercises with your child. If your child becomes easily overstimulated by vestibular input, seek advice from an occupational therapist before continuing with these activities.

Vestibular input activities can help your child with a wide range of challenges:: balance and stability, dizziness or nausea during or after movement, posture, reluctance to take part in movement, bumping into things regularly, headaches and sensitivity to rocking, spinning or swinging movements.

Our top 10 vestibular exercises for your child include:
Sky earth stretches
Downward dog
X stretch
Spin in a circle
Log rolling
Head tilts
Inch worm
Chair drops
Sword pulls

The 40-day Soundsory® program offers a wide range of in-program vestibular exercises. Soundsory® can boost kids’ neurodevelopment by pairing enhanced rhythmic music with holistic, whole-body exercises.

What are vestibular exercises?

Our vestibular system plays a key role in interpreting movement – this includes direction, speed, and whether the movement is with or against gravity. When we move our head, information is received through the vestibular system in the inner ear. Vestibular exercises are any movements that stimulate this system.

Why is the vestibular system important for your child?

When your child’s vestibular system is working as it should, they will feel balanced and able to move around easily. When it’s not working properly,  here are a few symptoms you may notice in your child:

  • Poor balance
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Craving rocking or swinging movements
  • Poor posture
  • Signs of physical distress during movement activities (sweating, pallor changes, dilated pupils)
  • Bumping into things more than others
  • Reluctance to take part in movement activities

Research shows that practicing vestibular exercises is effective at improving balance control in children. [1] Vestibular exercise therapy can also help to improve stability and posture in children with vestibular difficulties. [2]

How to practice vestibular input activities safely

Some children can have strong adverse reactions to vestibular exercises. If your child’s vestibular system has been overstimulated, they may show symptoms from the list above, or a worsening of those symptoms if they are already present. 

If your child has an adverse reaction to vestibular input, or is reluctant to engage, seek advice from an occupational therapist (OT) before starting a new program of vestibular exercises. Always respect your child’s wishes if they don’t feel comfortable to try a certain activity. 

Backward and rotary movements can be particularly triggering for children with vestibular sensitivity. Some symptoms like headaches or nausea may not appear until several hours after the exercises, which is why it’s important to speak to an OT if you’re concerned that your child may be sensitive to movement. 
Some children become very anxious when they are off the ground (such as a balance beam) or on unstable surfaces. This is known as gravitational insecurity, and it’s important to make these children feel safe by giving them a stable base of support.

Are vestibular exercises alerting or calming?

Vestibular activity can be either calming or alerting depending on the movement, the child and other factors. It can be hard to find the perfect amount of vestibular input for your child, particularly because their sensitivity can change from day to day. 
Your child’s vestibular system detects all movements, but there are a few types of movement that particularly stimulate it. These include rocking, spinning and swinging.

What happens if my child’s vestibular system is overstimulated?

The amount of vestibular input needed is different for every child, and also different for the same child at different times. If your child becomes overstimulated by vestibular activities, they may become very tired, overly energetic, or possibly even tearful.

What can I do if my child becomes overstimulated by vestibular input?

If your child appears to to be overstimulated following vestibular activities, follow the input with proprioceptive activities. We’ll explain below what proprioceptive activities are, and give some examples.

What’s the difference between proprioceptive and vestibular activities?

While the vestibular system tells us whether we are moving or not, the proprioceptive system gives us information about our body position. For example, if we walk along a street, our vestibular system tells us our head is moving through space. Our proprioceptive system tells us that our legs are moving too, so our brain lets us know that our whole body is in motion.

How does proprioceptive input relate to the vestibular system?

Vestibular input can produce many responses in your child, depending on their sensitivity and the specific movement. It can be organizing, calming, alerting or disorganizing. 

On the other hand, proprioceptive activities are usually organizing and calming for children. This is especially true when they are feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated. This is why it’s a great idea to do some proprioceptive exercises if your child becomes overstimulated by vestibular exercises

What are some examples of proprioceptive activities?

Here are a few proprioceptive activities you can do with your child if they become overstimulated by vestibular input:

  • Kneading playdough 
  • Yoga
  • Push-ups on the wall
  • Lifting and carrying objects
  • Bear hugs
  • Massages

Guide to the 10 best exercises for vestibular input

The Soundsory® music program is a great way to get your child’s vestibular system working. To continue working on vestibular development, you can try these exercises too. Remember to stop if your child becomes uncomfortable during the exercises, and to consult an occupational therapist before starting if you feel your child may be sensitive to movement. 

In this guide we’ll present what we consider to be the best exercises for vestibular development. For all of our exercises we’ve included three different versions of the exercises. These include: 

  • An original version which is ideally how the exercises should be completed. 
  • A modified version for children who find motor skills a bit more challenging.  
  • A simplified version for children who struggle with more complex motor skills and directions. 

The original and modified versions go through instructions for you to guide your child through the exercise, and the simplified version has instructions for you to follow so you can support your child. 

1. Sky earth stretches

Original: Stand up tall with your arms out above your head. Stretch your arms and fingers up to the ceiling. Then bend forward and fold in half. 

As your child stretches all the way up they also activate their proprioceptive system. This system controls awareness of where the body is in space. They use postural skills to lift their body back up to standing, and they can practice grading muscle movements by doing the exercise slowly.

Modified: Sit on a chair and lift your arms above your head, then bend forward and place your elbows on a chair. 

Simplified: Help your child to lift their hands above their head, then help them to bend forward slightly to touch their knees. 

2. Downward dog

Original: Get on all fours, placing your hands and feet on the ground. Extend your legs and try to get them as straight as possible. Keep your head between your arms while looking down toward your feet. 

This works your child’s vestibular system because their head is inverted. It also works their proprioception skills and core muscles as they hold their body in position. 

 Modified: Get on all fours, placing your arms out in front of you. Keep your head between your arms and leave your knees bent on the ground, then push back like you’re going to sit while keeping your arms outstretched in front of you. 

Simplified: Encourage your child to kneel on all fours and look down toward their knees. 

3. X stretch

Original: Stand like an ‘X’ with your arms out above your head, and legs slightly over hip width apart. Then fold over, keeping both arms extended and reach your left arm to your right foot. Stand up, and repeat with your right arm reaching to your left foot. 

This exercise works the vestibular system as your child bends forward and crosses their midline. By encouraging your child to look at their hand and foot during the exercise, they can also work on their visual skills. 

Modified: Stand like an ‘X’ with your arms overhead. Take your right arm to your left knee, looking down but not fully bending over. Repeat to the other side. 

Simplified: Demonstrate hands overhead to your child and encourage them to copy, or use stickers to match. 

4. Spin in a circle

Original: Stand with your arms out to the side and look at a point on the wall (door knob, picture, sticker). Slowly turn in a circle five times to the right then five times to the left. Repeat if you’re not feeling too dizzy. 

Modified: Stand with your arms out to the side and look at a point on the wall. Slowly turn five times to the right, pause for 10 seconds, then five times to the left. 

Simplified: Encourage your child to stand with their arms out to the side and look at a point on the wall. Using tactile cues if needed, encourage them to turn in a circle once then pause, a second time then pause, and a third time then pause for 10 seconds. If not too dizzy, repeat in the opposite direction. 

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5. Log rolling

Original: Lie on your back on the floor and roll 5-6 times in one direction. Pause for a few seconds, then repeat 5-6 times in the other direction.

Modified: Lie on your back on the floor and roll onto your front, then roll onto your back again. Repeat 10 times. 

Simplified: Get your child to lie on their back on the floor. Guide them through rolling 5-6 times in one direction and back again, or back to front 10 times. 

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6. Head tilts (back to front)

Original: Stand in one spot and slowly look up to the sky, while tilting your head back. Then slowly look down to the ground while tilting your head forward. 

Modified: Sit in a chair, look up to the sky then return to neutral. Then look down at the ground and return to neutral.

Simplified: 

Use gentle tactile cues or a visual cue (e.g. their favorite toy)  to help your child look up and down.

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7. Head tilts (side to side)

Original: Stand up and look straight ahead. Slowly tilt your right ear toward your right shoulder, then your left ear toward your left shoulder.

Modified: Sit on a chair and look straight ahead. Slowly tilt your right ear toward your right shoulder, then your left ear toward your left shoulder.

Simplified: Use tactile cues to guide your child’s head left and right, such as your hand or a soft toy on their shoulder. 

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8. Inch worm

Original:

From standing, slowly fold in half and place your hands on the ground. 

Modified: 

Instead of standing, do this exercise on all fours. Take 2 steps forward with your hands, then 2 steps with your feet. Repeat 5 times.

Simplified: On all fours, lift one hand and then the other. Then lift one leg and then the other, all without moving from the spot you’re in. Repeat this 3-5 times.

9. Chair drops

Original: While sitting in a chair, fold in half to touch your feet on the ground. Repeat this 10 times, at a gentle pace. 

Modified: While sitting in a chair, fold in half to touch your ankles. Pause, then repeat 8 times. 

Simplified: While sitting in a chair, fold in half to touch your shins or knees, pause for 3 seconds, then repeat 5 times. 

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10. Sword pulls

Original: Standing upright, use your right hand to pull a pretend sword from your left hip and reach up to the sky with your right hand (and imaginary sword).  Look up to your hand as you’re reaching up. Repeat 10 times with each hand. 

Modified: Standing upright, use your right hand to pull a pretend sword from your left hip and reach up to the sky with your right hand (and imaginary sword).  Look up to your hand as you’re reaching up. Repeat 5 times with each hand. 

Simplified Sitting upright in a chair, use your right hand to pull a pretend sword from your left hip and reach up to the sky with your right hand (and imaginary sword).  Look up to your hand as you’re reaching up. Repeat 5 times with each hand.

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Conclusion

Children with Autism, ADHD, motor delay and APD often struggle with vestibular input. For these children, vestibular exercises are a great way to start addressing those issues in a way that they feel comfortable. Another fantastic way to work the vestibular system is the Soundsory® program, which combines full-body movement exercises with rhythmic music. This 40-day program includes auditory exercises, cerebellum exercises and training for many other aspects of your child’s neurodevelopment.

FAQs

What is vestibular activity?
Vestibular activity is any movement that activates the vestibular system. This includes any movements where your head is moving forwards, backwards, up, down or in a circular motion.
What are vestibular calming activities?
Some children find that vestibular activities like rocking are calming to them. Other children may find vestibular activities alerting and may benefit from proprioceptive activities afterwards.
How can I improve my child’s vestibular system?
The best way to improve your child’s vestibular system is through practicing vestibular activities. This must be done in a safe way, which means keeping a close eye on any adverse effects and seeking support from an OT if you suspect your child is overly sensitive to movement.
How do you stimulate the vestibular system?
The vestibular system is sensitive to any movements where your head is moving through space. This particularly includes movements like rocking, spinning and swinging.
Is swinging proprioceptive or vestibular?
Swinging is a movement that stimulates the vestibular system. Movements that work the proprioceptive system include yoga stretches, wall push ups and kneading playdough.

References 

  1. Medeiros, I. R. T., Bittar, R. S. M., Pedalini, M. E. B., Lorenzi, M. C., Formigoni, L. G., & Bento, R. F. (2005). Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy in Children. Otology & Neurotology, 26(4), 699–703. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.mao.0000169051.69254.85
  2. Ebrahimi, A. A., Jamshidi, A. A., Movallali, G., Rahgozar, M., & Haghgoo, H. A. (2017). The Effect of Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy Program on Sensory Organization of Deaf Children With Bilateral Vestibular Dysfunction. Acta Medica Iranica, 55(11), 683–689. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29307157/

Rebecca Huxley

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I’m a writer and physiotherapist with six years’ clinical experience. I write educational content relating to healthcare, fitness and clinical practice. My writing is informed by my work in hospitals, private clinics, neurological rehab and sports.