The Importance of Sensory Integration in Infants.

What is sensory integration? To enable effective movement and body control we need sensory integration. Sensory integration is when your senses work together to interpret information and determine the correct reaction or physical outcome. To enable this to occur we use sight, taste, hearing, touch, smell, vestibular (balance and movement) and proprioception (body position) senses.

At birth a baby's nervous system is immature. Baby has not yet fully developed neurons and the pathways to make affective connections between body and brain. Without the formation of these connections sensory integration will become dysfunctional. The senses need to be stimulated to develop neurons, pathways and affective connections within the brain. The two main systems which are important in enabling movement are the vestibular system and the proprioceptor system.

The vestibular system is the sense which places the position of our body in space. Located in the inner ear the vestibular system primes the entire nervous system to function effectively. Fluid in the in the ear passes over nerve receptors sending messages to the brain about the position of our body in space. It is important to develop this sense so infants can counter gravity, develop balance and control eye movement. These skills are vital for the nervous system to develop coordination and to be able to interpret sensory information received.

The vestibular system is the sense that enables infants to develop gross motor skills. Without a sense of gravity or balance it would not be possible to develop the skills of sitting, crawling or walking. Without control of eye-movement your nervous system would not effectively interpret the information we receive from the sense of sight. Find activities which encourage the development of the vestibular system and incorporate them into your day. Activities which encourage movement such as gentle swinging or rocking, dance and crossing the midline activate the vestibular system and the nerve receptors which send messages to the brain.

The proprioceptive system is the sense that gives you awareness of the position of your body and its movement. Unlike the vestibular system which gives body position within space; the proprioceptive gives the position of your body in relation to the rest of your body and the movement of the limbs in relation to itself. The proprioceptive system is the sense which gives you fine motor skills. It allows you to effectively and correctly be able to know how far to bend or duck and to be able to pick something up. At birth infants have no sense of body awareness. They are not aware of their ability to move their own bodies and do not recognise that they are separate from their mother. It takes months to develop a sense of movement, control and the ability to use these skill. As the proprioceptive system develops the skill of movement and control becomes more developed. For example an infant begins by batting a toy before being able to manipulate a toy with a pincer grip.

The brain is making more connections during the first 1001 days of life than at any other time in your life. Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child found that over 1 million neural connections are being made every second in those first few years of life. The connections that are repeated and fired most create the most dominant patterns of behaviour and responses.

Through the movements an infant's brain receives messages via the nervous system. The infant begins to become more aware of their bodies movement and the position of their body. Repetitive movements such as moving baby's feet towards their mouth in an up and down motion makes it more likely they will try to grab their feet to begin investigating. The repetitive movement triggers the formation of a network of connections in the brain. This network continues to form. Baby becomes aware that their feet are part of their own body. Then baby begins to reach and grab their feet.

Finding ways of including developmental play into you and baby's routine will benefit you both hugely. You don't need expensive toys and gadgets; just you and baby. Think of ways you can introduce nurturing touch, gentle movement, textures and the changes of light. Connect with your baby through play. Use your voice, facial expressions and body. Introducing developmental play together not only aids effective sensory integration but creates strong, secure and loving bonds.

Nixie Foster - The Motherhood Mentor to high–flying female entrepreneurs and career women. The founder of ‘High-Flyer to Authentic Motherhood in 13 Steps' ;a mentorship program to assist you in finding your natural identity as a mother and give new mothers the secure, loving bond with their baby which allows them to confidently be their unique version of motherhood.

All opinions published in this article are the author’s own.

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