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The Basics of Pediatric Physical Therapy

Oct 22


What is pediatric physical therapy?

When you think of physical therapy, imagine an athlete that has torn a ligament or an elderly person that just had a joint replacement might come to mind. You would be correct to think of these images; however, children and babies also need physical therapy! Pediatric physical therapists (peds PTs) offer a variety of treatment options for children. This includes gross motor developmental delays, toe walking, sensory processing, orthopedic (sports) injuries, or complications from a specific diagnosis. While many of these problems can overlap, these are the basics of pediatric therapy. 

What does a peds PT treat? 

The most common reason children need PT is due to gross motor developmental delays. For infants and toddlers, this is not hitting milestones such as rolling, crawling, and walking as quickly as they should. For older children, this may be difficulty with stairs and curbs or keeping up with friends on the playground.  Delays are typically caused by a combination of weakness, balance, and coordination problems. PTs can address this by making exercises and functional activities fun and playful. 

Toe walking and sensory processing are also commonly addressed by PT! Most of the time, these two problems are seen together. Sensory processing can cause toe walking due to the nervous system not understanding the input from the feet correctly. This can cause the child to walk on their toes. Physical therapists also treat children with down syndrome, genetic disorders, cerebral palsy, autism, hydrocephalus, and other developmental diagnoses.  

What does a typical session look like and how long will my child need PT?

A typical PT session for children looks very different from an adult session. It should look and feel like playtime. The PT makes functional exercises and activities feel fun and like a game! Your PT will also give you activities to try at home with your little one to incorporate function into play at home. Our PT sessions usually last an hour-long once or twice a week for about twelve weeks. However, the time frame can vary depending on what your PT determines is best for your child! 

How will I know if my child needs PT?

A physician (commonly the pediatrician) must sign a referral for a physical therapy evaluation. Below is a list of major milestones and red flags to watch for in your child. You can always request a PT evaluation from your physician. 

  • Rolling – 5 months
  • Sitting independently – 7 months 
  • Crawling – 8 months
  • Pulling to stand – 9 months
  • Cruising – 9 months
  • Walking – 12 months 
  • Other: walking on toes, unable to climb stairs, falls often, one side of body seems significantly weaker than the other side, has difficulty keeping up with friends of the same age

These milestone age ranges are an average of the “typical” child. However, if your child has not reached these milestones by this exact age, it is not an immediate cause for concern!! Every child is different and will develop at their own pace, some early and some later. A good rule of thumb is if your child is more than 2 months past a milestone with no sign of attempting it, ask your doctor! 

Alex Calhoun, DPT:  I grew up in Brookhaven, MS, and graduated from Mississippi State in 2017 with a BS in Kinesiology and a minor in Spanish. After MSU, I attended UMMC for physical therapy school where I graduated in May of 2021 with a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. I absolutely love working with children and watching them learn, grow, and develop!