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Your Guide to Infant Physical Therapy 

Jan 04th, 2023 | by Liz Bulliner, PT, DPT

Liz Bulliner, PT, DPT

January 04th, 2023

Did you know babies can start physical therapy as young as one day old? Babies do not need to be a certain age to be able to participate in physical therapy. It is important to know when you should start talking to your infant’s pediatrician about any concerns you have about their gross motor development.

Physical Therapy in the NICU

If you have had a baby in the NICU, you have probably worked with pediatric physical therapists there to promote the brain, bone, and muscle development of your baby. In this setting, physical therapists work closely with the nursing staff, parents/caregivers, and physicians. Physical therapy often includes helping babies learn how to stay calm during necessary tasks (like diaper changes), range of motion to keep muscles and bones strong, and positioning and holding techniques for parents and nursing staff to help keep infants safe and to promote brain and sensory system develop.

Physical Therapy for Premature Babies

It is common for infants who are premature to benefit from physical therapy after they go home from the hospital. The most common settings for physical therapy at this stage are in the home through Early Intervention or in outpatient pediatric clinics (like NAPA😊). When physical therapists monitor gross motor skills of premature infants, we give them extra time to catch up depending on how early they are born we account for that time. We usually account for prematurity until a child is two years old.

The focus of physical therapy for premature infants in general is to promote acquisition of gross motor skills and to partner with families to promote use of those skills at home.

Physical Therapy for Infants  

Infants may be referred to physical therapy for a variety of reasons. Two of the most common reasons are gross motor delay and torticollis. When a child has either of these diagnoses, the earlier physical therapy can be started the better!

We see gross motor delays in infants for a variety of reasons and a child does not necessarily need another diagnosis to begin physical therapy if this is a concern. Typically if a child is more than 2-3 months delayed, its time to start seeking a physical therapy referral. The CDC just released new Developmental Milestones in 2022 to assist physicians and parents know when they should seek care from a physical therapist or other specialists. These guidelines capture when 75% of infants have met a particular milestone. For example, 75% of infants are able to sit unsupported at 9 months old, so if that is a skill your infant is still mastering at that age, it is time to start talking to your pediatrician about physical therapy.

Another commonly seen diagnosis in infants requiring physical therapy treatment is torticollis. Torticollis is an abnormal and asymmetrical position of the head and neck caused by tightness in one side of the sternocleidomastoid (SCM), a muscle that goes from behind the ears and attaches to the top of the breastplate and collarbone. Infants with this condition tend to have a side that they prefer to look to and to tilt their head the opposite way. For example, if an infant prefers to look to the right, you might notice that their head is tilted to the left, indicating that their left SCM is tight. The primary treatment for torticollis is physical therapy. NAPA has more resources about what torticollis is and specifics on how physical therapists treat it:

Physical Therapist for Babies  

When seeking physical therapy for your baby, it is important to seek out a clinic or provider that specializes in pediatrics. While all physical therapists learn some basics about pediatrics, clinicians who specialize in this area of practice have completed training and continuing education to become experts in development to provide the best care for infants and children.

Find Additional Resources in the NAPA Blog:

About the Author

Liz is a PT at our NAPA Denver location. Growing up with a disabled sister, she has always felt drawn to pediatrics and helping others.

TAGS: Blogs, PT
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