Infant Physical Therapy

Infant physical therapy is considered one of the most effective forms of rehabilitative treatment for babies who need assistance with balance, muscle control, milestones, and much more. Since physical therapy focuses on physical rehabilitation, many physicians recommend it for infants who have developed disorders and disabilities, regardless whether they surfaced from birth injuries or genetic abnormalities.

What is a Physical Therapist?

A physical therapist is a professional who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders and disabilities that affect an infant’s ability to move properly and carry out daily life functions. Children and infant physical therapists work with babies and children who have disorders, injuries, and disabilities, including:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Spina bifida
  • Autism
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Neuromuscular disorders
  • Torticollis, and more

Goals of Infant Physical Therapy

Since each infant’s needs will vary according to disability and disorder, physical therapists will generally create individualized goals for each patient.

For example, babies who are born premature often hold their shoulders up close to their ears, according to physical therapist Kelly Burgio, of the St. Louis Children’s Hospital. A common goal for premature babies is to help maintain proper posture by gently massaging and pushing the infant’s shoulders down. This also helps promote growth after missing crucial development in utero. 

Per Bobbi Pineda of the Washington University’s Occupational Therapy Program, premature infants are not only born underweight, but are also at risk of developing cognitive issues, motor impairment, and behavior problems as the grow older. Physical therapy can get set specific goals to help babies as they continue to grow and exhibit signs of the aforementioned issues. 

“Not only do they have a risk of motor impairment, but subtle learning problems, ADHD, psychiatric disorders and behavioral problems. But the good news is that many are resilient and do well. So, our goal is to find out those key elements that help those babies be more resilient and beat the odds,” Pineda said.  

Other types of goals, which may be centered around infants who have genetic abnormalities, genetic disorders, neuromuscular diseases, chronic medical conditions, and more, may include:

  • Promoting correct positions and movement patterns
  • Developing age-appropriate development skills
  • Managing and reducing pain
  • Improving muscle function
  • Overcoming limitations

Common Exercises and Tasks

Exercises and tasks taught in physical therapy sessions will again depend upon the infant’s age, disorder or disabilities, and how severe the issues are. In general however, the following are common exercises that infants may experience during physical therapy:

  • Exercise ball training for crawling development and strength support
  • Gentle massaging, muscle kneading, and stretching
  • Head control exercises
  • Hot and cold compression on affected joints and muscles
  • Adaptive equipment training
  • Flexibility and balance exercises

Where Does Physical Therapy Take Place?

Physical therapy can take place in a variety of settings, including doctor’s offices, clinics, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, classrooms, and even in-home sessions.

The setting for your baby’s physical therapy sessions generally depends on the type of exercises and tasks involved, if adaptive equipment is needed, and in many instances, what your insurance will cover (if applicable).

How to Know if Your Infant Needs Physical Therapy

A physician usually recommends physical therapy if an infant:

  • Fails to meet developmental milestones during the first year of life
  • Favors one side of the body and/or tilting the head to one side only
  • Has poor posture
  • Has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, torticollis, and other neuromuscular disorders
  • Has floppy and/or stiff muscle tone
  • Has excessive or limited joint mobility
  • Has difficulties with balance and coordination

While it’s important to watch out for the aforementioned signs, it’s also important to speak to your baby’s physician and express any questions and concerns. As previously mentioned, a physician is generally the one to recommend physical therapy, but usually after a complete diagnosis.

 Who Provides Physical Therapy to Infants?

Physical therapy is generally performed by experienced, accredited, and licensed professional who have successfully finished and the passed the National Physical Therapy Examination. Many physical therapists hold a Bachelor Degree of Physical Therapy, while others may hold a Master of Physical Therapy (MTP), a Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT), or a Doctor of Physical Therapy Degree (DPT). 

For infant physical therapy, your physician will more than likely recommend a therapist who specializes in pediatrics. It’s also a good idea for the physical therapist to be board-certified in pediatrics physical therapy through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists (ABPTS).

In addition, physical therapy assistants may work closely with, and under the supervision of infant physical therapists. Physical therapy assistants generally hold a state license in physical therapy.