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How to help develop baby’s senses – proprioception

Proprioception and proprioceptive system. Baby and mother sitting on floor reaching to toes

1 Mar, 2023

Did you know we have 8 senses? The usual 5 we all know about, sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing.

The sixth and seventh senses are the vestibular sense and proprioception. 

And the 8th is something called introspection.

At birth, the senses of hearing, touch, smell, and taste are usually fully developed. Vision takes a while to develop in babies (see my blog post on vision here), and vestibular, proprioception and introspection also need to be developed as baby grows.

This blog post will be focusing on one of the two movement and body awareness senses, the proprioceptive system. Check out my blog post on the vestibular system here.

If you’d like to learn more about developing baby’s senses then our CubCare Postnatal Course gives you all the information for baby’s physical and mental development.

Proprioceptive system stimulation

How about the seventh sense? The proprioceptive system. How can we help this develop in babies?

The proprioceptive system helps us understand where our body parts are in relation to each other, what each body part is doing, and how much effort is required to do things.

This incredibly clever sense uses information from the skin (using touch), muscles and joints to help build a map of our body and how it relates to its surroundings. Proprioceptive development is driven by movement, helping us to understand where to put our hand to scratch an itch, or how to move our leg to kick a ball.

The proprioceptive system allows the brain to understand the body like a map. This allows you to know that your head is above your shoulders, and your nose is in the middle of your face. Proprioception allows you to move your arm and hand towards your face, landing on your nose and give it a gentle scratch when it is itchy, rather than a forceful punch!

Proprioceptive input through experience allows you to know how much strength is required to pick up a child or to open a door. Our bodies are programmed to be able to immediately calculate the force required but it can only be done through experience.

Why is the proprioceptive system so important?

Proprioception allows a person to understand how much pressure to apply when brushing teeth, where to reach when brushing hair. It also helps with a host of other self-care routines, such as getting dressed.

This important sense can also help with self-regulation too. The feeling of a long, deep cuddle can be incredibly calming. In the absence of continuous cuddles, weighted blankets can recreate that same deep muscle sensory input. Another example of self-regulation using the proprioceptive system is being soothed to sleep with gentle strokes to the face. Babies and children will often recreate this sensory input themselves with a finger whilst sucking their thumb, or using a comforter or muslin once there are older.

Proprioceptive input can also help with reaching gross motor milestones. Allowing lots of free play such as kicking on a mat or playing with a baby gym; and as they get older lots of time for crawling and moving around, will help proprioceptive receptors in baby’s joints as well as skin. This sensory input plus things like baby yoga, massage and sensory play will help with their gross motor development. Reaching physical movement milestones and lots of gross motor activities will help them to participate in sport. This amazing sense will also help develop fine motor control too. Things like writing and mark making on a piece of paper, or threading beads on to string. These intricate movements of the hands need lots of sensory input from hands, arms and fingers.

How to help babies develop their proprioceptive system?

Those uncoordinated movements that babies do, kicking their arms and legs aimlessly, helps to build muscle, but also it helps to develop their proprioceptive system. The more they can move freely, the more they are creating their own map of their body and its abilities.

Proprioception begins to develop in the womb. They push and kick against the walls of the uterus and get an idea of the restricted space their body is in. Once a baby is born, their movement and sense touch help them form a new mental map of their body. Suddenly there is a lot more space and their bodies can do a lot more movement. It moves differently than what it did in the womb and that can sometimes be overwhelming, but also a great opportunity for them to learn. So while swaddling is great to help calm babies who are overwhelmed by their sudden abilities to move freely, it should be balanced by lots of unrestricted play.

Activities such as baby massage and yoga also help to develop the proprioceptive system. The skin stimulation across their body allows their brain to develop their body map; and the coordinated movements of baby yoga help to open up the possibilities of movement. Repetitive movements help to build these connections further as repetition create familiarity. Practice makes perfect as they say.

If you’d like to learn more about developing baby’s senses then our CubCare Postnatal Course gives you all the information for baby’s physical and mental development.

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