Dressing a Child with Cerebral Palsy

Dressing is a basic life skill all children need to learn at an early age. Learning to put on their own clothing not only prepares children to become more independent, but also gives them a sense of accomplishment and better self-esteem. This is important for children affected by cerebral palsy, and occupational therapists spend many hours teaching them how to tie their shoes or button shirts and pants correctly. Depending on how severely their muscle control is affected by cerebral palsy, some children may learn these basic skills via occupational therapy in combination with daily practice and parental support.

Younger Children

When you’re dressing a normal toddler or infant, it’s common to lay them down on a dressing table to dress them. Normal toddlers typically start dressing themselves around 2 or 3 years old, learning how clothing is supposed to be worn and which pieces are intended for what use.

That being said, children with cerebral palsy may have a number of intellectual disabilities or muscular difficulties that keep them from progressing as the average child would. To that end, you may be dressing a younger child with cerebral palsy as you would be dressing an infant: lying down. If this is the only way you can dress your child with cerebral palsy, make sure that your child is lying on a bed for this process.

Dressing on a Bed

If you need your child to lay down while you dress him or her, be sure that it is on the bed and not, say, on the floor or on another piece of furniture. The bed is the safest and most comfortable place for the child to be dressed. Also make sure that the bed is elevated so as not to injure your back.

However, if the bed is elevated, this presents more of a daily challenge for your child as he or she has a greater risk of falling out of the bed in the middle of the night, or stumbling out of bed in the morning. If the bed is elevated, install a safety rail to keep your child from rolling out of bed in the night, and perhaps place alongside the bed a set of wide steps so that your child’s emergence from bed is a safe and steady process.

Older Children

If your child with cerebral palsy is at the school-aged level (approximately ages 3-10) or if he or she is a teenager, try to encourage your child to stand while you’re dressing him or her. Older children and teenagers should work on standing and on strength, according to the recommendations of your child’s occupational therapist. By holding onto a piece of furniture like a dresser or a bookcase, you are teaching your child to stabilize balance in this daily activity.

Additionally, your child can observe how clothing should be put on and you can aid with showing your child how to hold onto a stabilizing piece of furniture and operate clothing at the same time. While you still may need to hold the child for extra support, you’re showing your child how to do something that is both simple and important.

Developing Independence

Children with cerebral palsy who take independent measures end up being overall happier than children who don’t. If your child is getting more independence, allow him or her to try this basic exercise by first taking off his or her clothes. By removing the articles of clothing, he or she can see how they operate, and it’s generally easier for children to take off clothes than it is for them to put them on (especially with socks, for example).

Encourage teamwork with your child, suggesting that if the child takes, for example, the sleeve, you’ll help with the back hem of the shirt. Start with easy tasks that the child can manage his or herself, and then challenge the child from there.

Reaching Independence

It’s important for your child to move toward independently dressing. Be sure to ask your occupational therapist first if he or she thinks it’s safe to let your child attempt it, and the first time your child dresses or undresses independently, you should be in the same room to make sure that he or she is taking the necessary safety precautions.

Not only observe to make sure that your child is safe while undressing, but also encourage and cheer on your child as he or she is going through each challenging step. Your child may need a chair or bench to rest on, so make sure that you have made one available if there isn’t already one in their room.