Hammock Swings = Vestibular Input!

Hammock swings are ubiquitous in sensory clinics, and are often the first piece of suspended equipment that children explore when they enter the space. Whether the hammock swing is made of a continuous open weave, a closed-weave canvas fabric, or a stretchy Lycra blend, it will often offer the same sensory benefits: vestibular input.

Many of our families are familiar with the role of the vestibular system in our motor processing.  Balance and vestibular processing are often used interchangeably, and indeed, are closely related. The vestibular system includes several components of our deep inner ear: the utricle, saccule and the semicircular canals. The utricle and saccule help us sense gravity, and orient us to which way is up. The three semicircular canals help us sense and process rotary input. Together, these components help us process such information as directionality, speed, and orientation of our head/eyes in relation to our body.

As with so many other sensory processes, the vestibular system works in conjunction with other systems, which makes it invaluable in promoting self-regulation and motor skills. The vestibular system develops very closely with the visual system in infants and toddlers, and the two remain linked neurologically, as development continues. The vestibular system is also linked to regulation of muscle tone, via reticulospinal nerves, and linked to digestion and level of arousal via wiring of the vagal and vestibular nerves in the auditory canal and in the brain. Together with input from our joints (proprioception) and deep pressure tactile input from our skin, our vestibular system helps us develop a body schema which helps us determine how to move our body to interact with our environment in a coordinated and controlled manner (praxis). Finally, the vestibular system is also important in regulating our arousal levels, through its association with the reticular formation, a cluster of neurons that, in part, manage sleep and consciousness. Providing organizing vestibular input can therefore impact a broad range of neurological and muscular functions thus impacting daily function at a global level.

Playing and moving in a swing sets off a range of physical reactions as little bodies try to move and balance. Muscles, nerves and vision strive to work together and result in strengthening of the vestibular system, coordination, motor skills and balance in a fun and playful way.

Open Weave Hammock Swing

Hammock swings are relatively inexpensive to purchase, and are simple to install.  An open weave hammock, suitable for offering soothing, linear, rocking input, may be purchased at South Paw Therapy.

Children often prefer to lie in this swing with pillows or blankets, thus getting the benefit of enhanced proprioceptive and tactile input through the ‘squishing’ sensation, while lying face up. Other children prefer to pin one side of this hammock up with a carabiner to form a chair-like seat and propel themselves by pulling against a stationary rope held by the playmate/parent. This activity allows children to benefit from the organizing linear input of the swing, while seated upright, as they would be when walking/running, while also receiving proprioceptive input via joint traction (stretching of the joints) through the force of pulling against the rope. (Pro Tip: We use the belts of a karate ensemble instead of ropes in our clinic to eliminate the threat of rope-burn!)

Hammock swings are also great for kids to use on tummies! They are a boon for helping children with poor upper body strength to practice weight bearing on their hands while their lower body is supported by the swing. “Tummy Time” for big kids, this prone position helps stabilize shoulder joints and strengthens palmar arches, two essential components to functional fine motor skills such as handwriting for school and managing clothing fasteners for independent dressing skills.

An open weave hammock from South Paw Therapy Supply

Lycra Hammock Swing

Lycra hammocks (also called cuddle swings) are available in a variety of sizes and colors. The Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga Hammock swing is gloriously large, and allows for all kinds of games to evolve from the stretching or layering of the fabric. The swing is also highly rated for construction and durability, and might be the best choice for very boisterous play.

With Lycra swings, proprioceptive input is inherent by nature of the stretch in the fabric; all of the child’s movements will have to occur against this stretch, which can be very organizing for children with poor body awareness and impaired vestibular processing. Children who are working on sequencing gross motor tasks will benefit from merely getting in and out of a lycra swing, as feedback from their movements will be enhanced by overcoming the stretch of the swing.

Children who are anxious about leaving the ground and who refuse use of a hammock swing (all those holes through which to see the distant floor!) may feel more comfortable in the opaque Lycra swing.  The swing can also be lowered so that it reaches the ground for anxious feet, when occupied by a child and can gradually be raised as comfort increases.

The Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga Hammock is a large, Lycra swing.

DIY Swing & Helpful Accessories

Hammock swings also happen to be very easy to construct (check out this page on A Sensory Life), given some basic pieces.

And, as with any piece of suspended sensory equipment, please follow installation instructions carefully and be sure to comply with weight restrictions. If you are not sure where to safely hang a swing in your home, consider using a door bar.

It is also wise to place a gym mat or foam play mat under the swing area to minimize the inevitable bumps/bruises.

Check out these DIY tips for a cuddle swing from A Sensory Life.
Consulting with an occupational therapist trained in use of vestibular equipment is always encouraged. In our clinic, we offer consultations to parents and assist with resources for setting up a home sensory room, which often includes use of swings.  A child or family do not need to be enrolled in therapy to access consultative services, and setting up an initial call is the best place to start if you are unsure about use of swing or if a home program is sufficient to meet the sensory needs of your child at home.

Regardless of the composition of the hammock swing, it can serve as an engaging and effective way to deliver organizing vestibular input to support self-regulation, functional arousal levels, muscle strength and endurance, and motor planning/praxis.  Happy swinging!

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