Although there is a common misconception that occupational therapy applies only to adults with disabilities or work-related injuries, it is also relevant to babies and children who need assistance with disabilities, disorders, and more. Infant occupational therapy, also known as pediatric occupational therapy, is most often recommended for infants who have delayed development in fine motor skills and self-care, and who have difficulties with sensory processing.
The Difference Between Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy
Infant physical therapy and infant occupational therapy are similar in the sense that both types of therapies aim to help babies and children live their lives at the highest quality possible. However, physical therapy specializes in endurance, gross motor function, pain, and joint range of motion, while occupational therapy deals with sensory-processing, fine motor skills, and cognitive skills.
Delays in Fine Motor Skills
There are a variety of characteristics that can hinder a infant’s progress with fine motor skills, including:
- Floppy, poor, and/or limp muscle tone
- Hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity
- Lack of motor control and dexterity
Fine motor skills are defined as the coordination of small muscle movements, such as in the fingers, hands, and toes. When infants have weak fine motor skills, they may be unable to perform daily “occupational” skills that are age-appropriate, such as holding a bottle while drinking, grasping objects, and bringing their hands to their mouth.
Fine motor skills can be delayed for a number of reasons, including traumatic birth injuries that lead to neurological disorders, genetic factors, and pregnancy complications.
An infant occupational therapist helps babies with delays in fine motor skills by:
- Helping them bring their hands together via physical development exercises
- Helping with grasping small objects via small muscle strength training
- Stimulating toys and positioning equipment
Once babies start to develop fine motor skills, occupational therapists help them apply their skills to self-care, such as bottle feeding alone, holding spoons and food, and more.
Delays in Sensory Processing and Cognitive Skills
Sensory processing, also known as sensory integration, is medical term that defines the way nervous system receives and senses messages. Once the message is sensed, an action follows, such as a behavioral response or a motor action.
Infants who display delays in sensory processing have a difficult time responding to their sensory signals. For instance, a baby who is injured may not cry as expected. In other instances, an infant may overreact to the slightest touch. Even the fabric of a soft blanket may be too much for a baby with a sensory processing disorder to handle, and they may react with incessant crying. Other babies may cry when around light and/or sounds.
Occupational therapists help babies with sensory processing delays and disorders by first diagnosing the disorder, then applying various exercise techniques to help the baby become more comfortable and adapt easier to daily living.
For example, if an infant has trouble sleeping through the night due to sound sensitivity, an occupational therapist will create and carry out an individualized plan that helps the baby grow more tolerant to common noises. If a baby has touch sensitivities, an occupational therapist will work towards promoting decreased touch sensitivity. Common exercises and activities may include:
- Relaxing bath time activities, using soft soaps and gentle massages
- Specialized toys and activities to help babies learn how to deal with sounds, lights, and touch appropriately
- Sand and water therapy
- Joint and brushing compressions
- Proprioceptive input activities
- Vestibular input activities
- Feeding therapy
- Olfactory input activities
Where Does Occupational Therapy Take Place?
Occupational therapy can take place in pediatric hospitals, clinics, healthcare facilities, and specialized centers that are solely dedicated to infants and occupational therapy.
Parents and loved ones are encouraged to practice activities and exercises with their babies at home as well. In fact, most occupational therapists work closely with parents when devising plans and goals and often need parental participation for the high chances of success.
Infant Occupational Therapist Qualifications
Infant occupational therapists generally hold a master’s degree in occupational therapy, along with state licensing requirements, which will vary according to each state.
In addition, supervised internships are a general requirement in all states. Board certification may be optional, again depending on the state, but it’s recommended that parents work with someone who specializes in working with infants and is board-certified in pediatric occupational therapy.
For assistance in finding a qualified infant occupational therapist, consult with your baby’s pediatrician.