Often parents wonder why their child would benefit from being in the water before they are old enough to swim. How will aquatic therapy work at such a young age? Does this form of therapy even make a difference if the child can’t even roll or sit up or walk independently yet?
An article in the Pediatric Journal of Physical Therapy by Beth McManus and Milton Kotelchuck in 2007 investigated this very question. They compared children in an Early Intervention program (ages 6 months-2.5 years) receiving traditional home visits by a PT or OT and children that received weekly aquatic therapy treatment in addition to their weekly PT or OT home visit. The children participating in the aquatic therapy group had significant improvement in their gross motor skills and mobility when compared to children that received only home visits.
While it is impossible to tell whether the increase is entirely due to the aquatic nature of the added therapy sessions or simply due to having therapy 2x’s/week, the authors concluded that “The control group with motor delay demonstrated an overall decline in normal scores of gross motor skills, which is suggestive of a strong influence of AT (aquatic therapy) in augmenting services of children with neuromuscular and developmental delays and disabilities.” This is GOOD NEWS! This means that adding aquatic therapy services at this pivotal time in a child’s life can not only prevent them from losing ground in their gross motor skills when compared to their peers, but can actually help them gain ground! In addition to the gains in motor skills, parents also found increased confidence in taking their child to recreational centers and community pools. Parents and therapists also observed that the children had increased enjoyment during the therapy process.
What kinds of things do small children work on during aquatic physical therapy? Depending on the ability and age of the child, the child may be fully supported by the therapist or may have some independence in shallow areas or with floatation devices. The depth of water can be adjusted by where the therapist stands to either assist or resist the child’s movements. This can be used to work on head control, balance, moving to and across midline, rolling, sitting, tummy time, standing, walking…. and on and on… Kicking, reaching, floating with or without support, climbing out, jumping in, and blowing bubbles can all be used therapeutically to enhance motor skills.
In my own practice, I have seen many children develop core stability and control in the water, which has allowed them to move with new control in their homes and community. I have also witnessed many first moments of independent standing, stepping, walking, and floating. Perhaps most importantly of all, I see smiling faces (nearly all the time) and children who truly love spending time in the water.
Article can be read here: Aquatic Therapy and EI