What is Proprioception? Understanding the “Body Awareness” Sense
At every age, senses help with more than just seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and hearing. Senses play an important role in everything from staying balanced, to riding a bike, to knowing when we’re hungry and thirsty.
Here we’ll dive into a sense called proprioception, also known as the body awareness sense. Learn more about all the senses by visiting our sensory page, or read about the vestibular sense (the balance sense) and interoception (the internal sense).
What is proprioception?
To understand what proprioception is, close your eyes and hold out your hands. Move your arms and hands around. Even with your eyes closed, can you tell how far or close your hands are from your body? That’s your proprioceptive sense at work!
Proprioception is the body awareness sense. It tells us where our body parts are without having to look for them. This helps to know where body parts are relative to each other, which strengthens our coordination skills. It also tells us how much force to use when we’re holding, pushing, pulling, or lifting objects.
Where does proprioception come from?
Proprioception is detected by special receptors in the muscles, tendons, and skin. Those receptors communicate with our brain to tell us where our body parts are in space.
In the early years of life, our developing proprioceptive sense creates a map in our mind of where our body part are. Vision helps with proprioception, but it’s not necessary to see your body parts in order to know where your body parts are.
What are some examples of proprioception?
- Touching face and hands to feet: Once of baby’s 4-6 month milestones is “finding their feet”, which is where they touch their feet with their hands. This milestone is made possible by creating a mental map of the body.
- Brushing hair: Proprioception helps us know where our arm is in space, and helps us reach our hair without hitting ourselves in the face with the brush or missing our hair. It helps us use the proper amount of force while brushing our hair to not cause any pain.
- Holding an egg: Proprioception tells us how much force to use while holding an egg so it doesn’t crack.
- Playing a sport: Proprioception helps with knowing how far to extend a hand to catch a ball, or how far to reach a foot to kick a ball or step on a base.
- Writing or drawing: Proprioception tells us how hard to write, so you don’t break your writing utensil on the paper.
What are signs your child may have a proprioceptive issue?
A proprioceptive processing issue can vary from person to person. Sometimes it will look like a lack of self-control. Children who struggle with self-control may engage in rough play, with pushing, biting, or kicking. Because knowing how much force to apply is a part of proprioception, children with a proprioceptive issue may write too hard and break their writing utensil, or they may drop objects frequently.
Proprioceptive issues can also look like clumsiness due to a lack of coordination. Children may struggle to stand on one foot, may bump into people or things regularly, or fall down steps.
A proprioceptive issue can be hard to notice because it may present as a motor skills issue, so be sure to consult a healthcare provider for more information.
How can you help develop baby’s proprioceptive sense?
- Swaddle baby in early months. This helps baby to get in touch with where their body parts are.
- Do baby stretches and baby massage so baby can build a map of their body in their mind.
- Do Tummy Time. Encourage age-appropriate physical activities for baby, as well as motor milestones such as crawling and walking.
- Try baby games! Many baby games help develop this sense. Here’s one that helps: Around 6 months old, put different textured objects in a box (e.g. scarves) and let baby pull them through a hole in the box.