Physical Therapy Exercises for Babies With Down Syndrome
For children with Down syndrome, physical activity and exercise can be inherently more challenging. However, our Fort Myers physical therapy team members recognize the huge role that exercise can play in reducing – and in some cases substantially improving – the many adverse health conditions associated with Down syndrome. Ultimately, exercise can boost a child’s functional ability, which helps them to be more independent.
But why start with babies? Because we already know that children with Down syndrome are going to have certain physical challenges. For instance, many have poor muscle tone (formally known as hypotonia). Some parents will describe this as the quality of being “sort of floppy,” and you’ll notice early on, they have trouble keeping up their neck or controlling their head for any significant stretch – even when other kids their age have mastered this. The earlier we start working on things like core strength, flexibility, and gross motor skills, the more progress they’ll make and the less difficult it’s going to be for them later on.
That said, it’s very important that you only start these exercises with your child after checking with your physical therapy provider and/or pediatrician. Some activities may need to be tailored to meet your child’s specific needs and abilities.
Tummy Time and Sit Ups
Tummy time is something that’s recommended for all babies between birth and 4 months. It’s a great way to strengthen the neck, shoulder and arm muscles. If you place your child on his or her tummy, and they don’t seem to want to lift their head, run two fingers gently but firmly up and down their spine. This can help encourage them to lift their head.
Another type of exercise is “sit ups.” These aren’t your conventional sit-ups. These involve laying your baby flat on their back and slowly, gently pulling them up into a sitting position while holding their hands/harms. At first, you may notice that your child’s head seems to loll backward. The goal is to get them to hold their head/neck up as you do this exercise. Again, your physical therapist can teach you how to do this correctly.
For this exercise, you put a small pillow or bunched up towel underneath the baby’s head and gently put them on their side. Then you place a favorite toy or colorful object in front of them and then stroke their spine to encourage them to roll toward the object. The goal is to eventually get them to roll onto their tummy, where they can work on lifting and turning their head.
You can also use a rollover “cheat” that involves rolling a small towel or blankie and placing it under their bottom and then encouraging them to roll from side to side. It makes the initial act of rolling over a bit easier and establishes some muscle memory for them to learn to do it on their own.
Learning to sit up can take more time for children who have Down syndrome compared to typically developing children. In physical therapy, we have a number of toys and tools and exercises to help encourage this. At home, parents can practice (with close supervision), placing their child in a sitting position with their back against a solid surface (couch, wall, etc.) and using a boppy pillow in front of them to help them sit up without falling over.
You can also position your child to sit between your legs with their back to your stomach, your legs on either side and the boppy in a backwards position in front of them.
Consult With Your Child’s Physical Therapy Team First!
Keep in mind: These exercises should only be done for short stints and with careful supervision, and only after consulting with your child’s physical therapy team.
FOCUS offers pediatric physical therapy to children in Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, Bonita Springs and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.
Motor Performance of Children With Down Syndrome and Typical Development at 2 to 4 and 26 months, 2015, Pediatric Physical Therapy
More Blog Entries:
FOCUS Physical Therapists Can Help Kids With Down Syndrome Stay Fit, Active & Healthy, Nov. 20, 2020, Fort Myers Physical Therapy Kids Blog