Monthly Archives: March 2017

Infants With Sensory Sensitivity: When Your Fussy Baby Takes Over Your Life

Parents are often the first to suspect that their infant’s constant and intense complaints are more than just fussiness.  Sometimes pediatricians pick up on a pattern of edginess that cannot be explained by all the usual suspects:  teething, food sensitivity, temperament.  Having a baby who complains bitterly about the most common events, such as diaper changes and nursing, can take over a parent’s life and make them question their sanity.

Judging by the research literature, you would think that sensory sensitivity only happens to toddlers or preschoolers!  Those 4 year-olds who refuse to wear shirts with long sleeves and cannot handle a car ride without vomiting often started out as super-fussy babies.  Their parents may have tried the lactation consultant, the pediatrician, maybe even the neurologist, in a frantic search for help.  They could have used an OT.

I have treated babies as young as 6 months-old that displayed clear signs of sensory sensitivity after prolonged periods of peri-natal NICU stays or procedures.  Why would a few months in the NICU make a baby sensory-averse to diaper changes and being held?  Well, look at it from the perspective of an immature nervous system.  They got more stimulation than they could handle, and their brains responded by interpreting everything as a potentially invasive experience.  Turns out, a good percentage of children who require intensive and ongoing medical procedures to save their lives don’t recall the experience, but their body does. Ask psychiatrists doing fMRIs, or functional MRI’s, what they see in adult trauma victims.  Parts of the brain that encode emotion and memory will light up like Christmas trees when faced with innocuous stimuli.  Oops.

Progressive NICU’s are making changes, but those nurses have no choice to perform multiple and invasive procedures and do them in a very stimulating environment.  They are working hard at a very difficult task; saving the lives of really tiny, really sick babies.

Is a NICU stay the only way to become a sensory-averse infant?  Not at all.  It seems some infants are just wired to be more sensitive, and some babies need only a little bit of extra excitement to become sensitive.  I treated an infant under 6 months of age that struggled to nurse.  She had the oral motor skills to suck, the swallowing skills to avoid choking, but she disliked the feel of her mother’s skin touching her face.  She nursed until she wasn’t starving, then refused any more.  Her mother felt rejected and not in love with her little girl any more.  The baby wasn’t growing and was constantly agitated.  We worked hard in therapy to help this baby, but until we realized what the problem was, every time her mom tried to get her to nurse more, she was repeating the cycle of aversion and agitation.

My approach for my youngest sensory-averse clients combines everything I know from Happiest Baby on the Block and all my training in sensory processing theory and practice as a pediatric occupational therapist.  The first step is convincing parents that they didn’t cause this behavior, and then convincing them that there is treatment that works.  Combining calming sensory input, environmental adaptations, and skill building in these little babies can make a huge difference in their lives and their family’s experience.  If your baby is incredible fussy and no one can find a good reason, pursue pediatric occupational therapy with an experienced therapist.  It could calm things down more quickly than you think!

Help Your Newborn Adjust to Daycare By Using Happiest Baby on the Block Strategies

ID-100108085.jpgReturning to work soon after delivery can mean putting your 3-month old in daycare.  As challenging as this can be emotionally, it can also be a struggle for your baby, especially if her only self-calming strategy has been nursing.  Should you (or could you) quit your job or just tough it out?  There is another alternative:  teach your little one to respond to  a wider variety of self-calming cues.

Self-calming at 3 months?  Well, yes and no.  Babies at this age are learning to respond to messages that we send.  This is the very beginning of self-regulation.  Actions and sensory inputs that tell their nervous system ” You are safe”, “It’s time to sleep” and “I get it; you need a little more help to calm down and I know what to do”.  They aren’t able to devise  their own solutions yet, but they can begin to self-calm if we read their behavior correctly and understand what they need developmentally and neurologically.  This is where Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby on the Block strategies, and his other great sleep solutions, can save your sanity and your child’s sleep.  Many of the 5 S’s that worked so well in the first 12 weeks of life can be adjusted to support this transition into daycare.

The weeks between 3 months and 6 months are almost the 5th trimester (Dr. Karp refers to the first 3 months of life as the “4th trimester”).   I think it is a bridge period in which babies need more help to calm down than many realize.  At this age, they suck their fingers to self-soothe while awake.   But… they aren’t strong enough to keep their hands or their thumbs in their mouth when they are lying down and falling asleep.  Gravity pulls those heavy hands down to the crib mattress. They don’t babble their way to sleep the way a 6 month-old does, and they are barely ready to listen to lullabies. So what can you do?  Be creative and use the 5 S’s as a launching point for your new routines.

Swaddling may not be as effective, or even safe, at this stage.  Babies who are rolling could be strong enough to roll onto their bellies.  With their arms swaddled, they are at risk for suffocation.  Once your baby is in that “I’m gonna practice this rolling thing all day” stage, swaddling becomes more of a risk than a solution.

There are swaddle garments that convert to safer solutions for this stage.  The garments that still give firm pressure over the chest but leave legs and arms free are specifically designed to keep that nice calm feeling going.  They allow your child to roll freely.  Dr. Karp also suggests that swaddling in an infant swing is another safe choice for those babies that are experimenting with rolling but still need swaddling to pull it all together.  REMEMBER:  your baby needs to be put into the swing calm, and securely strapped in.  If she is too big for the swing, then don’t use it.  Just because it is calming for her is not a reason to use a too-small swaddling blanket or a tiny infant swing.

Pacifiers are recommended by both Dr. Karp and the American Academy of Pediatrics, but some babies don’t love them, and some parents are afraid of creating a paci addict.  For those nervous parents, I wrote a special post: Prevent Pacifier Addiction With A Focus on Building Self-Calming Without Plastic.  The truth is that sucking is a normal developmentally-appropriate self-calming behavior, and addiction really doesn’t become an issue until your child has nothing else that works at all.

Between 3-6 months, your little one is still benefitting from sucking, and she can learn to use a paci in daycare.  She isn’t at risk of nipple confusion, unlike a 2 week-old, and she won’t reject your breast because of paci use.  Nursing is the total package of love, warmth and nutrition.  If she says “no more” to nursing, it is likely that she would have done so without the paci.  Some babies are just ready to be done early.  Use Dr. Karp’s paci learning technique to teach a baby how to handle a paci and keep it in her mouth.  By 3 months, she has strong oral muscles, so it is a matter of practice and helping her to realize how handy pacis can be to calm a bit for sleep.  If she spits it out while asleep….well, mission accomplished!

White noise is the one HBOTB strategy that never needs to end.  But for these little guys, the new noises of daycare are so different from home that this may be the secret weapon.  Dr. Karp sells his carefully designed white noise CD.  It can be loaded onto a phone as well from iTunes. Select the track that matches your child’s state (crying, drowsy  and calm, etc.) and watch the magic begin.  Encourage your daycare to use this totally safe method of soothing.

Rocking a baby in your arms can replace the infant swing, and some older newborns still calm down when held on their sides or stomach.  Again, this is never a sleep position, just a calming position.  But if it works for your baby, feel free to use it when you hold her.

Once you have created an updated HBOTB routine that works, share it with the daycare staff.  You may find that they have rules and regulations, and some staff aren’t open to new ideas.  My suggestion is to emphasize how easily you can get her calm.  Even the most rigid care provider’s ears perk up when she thinks that there is a way to make her job easier.  These people work long hours and work hard.  Think of this as helping her and your little one have a better day!

“Toilet Training Season” Is Coming. Do You Have a Plan?

 

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Here in the northeast, the buds on the trees are reminding parents that it will be time to sign up for summer camps and preschool.  And therefore toilet training season is upon us.  Most schools for typically-developing kids over 3 don’t accept children that aren’t trained.  If they do, they may demand a surcharge, have only a few classrooms for older kids in diapers, or limit activities such as the use of swimming pools.

If you are thinking that now is the time to train, you are probably wondering if you are going to use the “Boot Camp” approach, or the “Gradual Training” approach.  Going all in is the “Boot Camp” method.  Your child’s life, and yours, is focused on learning the mechanics of using the toilet and perceiving when to run to the potty.  “Gradual Training” is slowly developing awareness and skills in young children.  You might start from a very early age, describing your actions during a diaper change and demonstrating what potties are for, and that it is both something grown-ups do and not anything to be afraid of.

Either way can be totally successful, and your choice rests on their temperament and yours, your timeline, and your available support.  If your child doesn’t handle failure well, or would find it difficult to spend a whole weekend in or near the potty, then you might consider Gradual Training.  If your child learns best by frequent repetition and rewards, then Boot Camp has appeal.  If you have no one else to watch other kids or you know your patience will be strained by a day of (your child) drinking and peeing, then you may want to go Gradual.   I want to emphasize that choosing the approach you take by looking at your own abilities and limitations is important.  So often, parents discount their feelings and end up displaying their frustration or boredom to their child.  Here is the bad news:  children think that negative parental moods are THEIR FAULT!  Choose wisely, and both of you feel good about yourselves and the experience.  Choose poorly, and you both get more aggravation than you expected.

So now that the season for training is upon us, choose your plan and get ready to give your child all the support and encouragement that you can!

Want more help?  My new e-book, The Practical Guide to Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone, is available on my website, tranquil babies .  Just look for the ribbon at the top and click on “e-book”.  I go into all the details on whether your child is really ready for training, provide you with checklists for readiness, and give you an in-depth explanation of the Boot Camp and Gradual Training methods.  Halfway there and experiencing some resistance?  The chapter “Bumps In The Road” is for you!  

To get a sense of how I view true readiness, check out my post Low Tone and Toilet Training: The 4 Types of Training Readiness.  While not as complete as the chapter in the book, this will start you thinking about readiness in a different way.

Child Writing Too Lightly on Paper? It Might Not Be Hand Strength Holding Him Back

If your child barely makes a mark when he scribbles or writes, most adults assume that grasp is an issue. Today’s post suggests that something else could be the real reason for those faint lines.

Limitations in postural and bilateral control contribute far more to lack of pressure when writing  than most parents and teachers realize.  For every child in occupational therapy that is struggling to achieve good grasp, I see three whose poor sitting posture and inability to get a stable midline orientation are the real issues.

Think about it for a minute:  if you sat with your non-dominant (not the writing hand) hand off to the side and you shifted your body weight backward in your chair, how would you be able to use sufficient force on a pencil or a crayon?  Try this right now.  Really.  You would have to focus on pressing harder while you write and hope your paper doesn’t slip around.  That would require your awareness and some assessment of your performance.  Children don’t do “awareness and assessment” very well.  That ability comes from frontal lobe functions that aren’t fully developed in young children.  But they can learn where to place their “helper hand”, and that sitting straight and shifting forward is the correct way to sit when you scribble or write.

If a child has sensory processing or neuromuscular issues such as cerebral palsy, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or Down Syndrome, achieving adequate postural stability may take some effort on the part of the therapists and the teacher.  Well worth it, in my experience.  There are easy hacks that help kids; good equipment and good seating that won’t cost a fortune or inconvenience the class.  Every child can learn that posture is important for writing.  But the adults have to learn it first.  Kids take their cues from what adults appear to value, and if they figure out that they are allowed to slump or lean, they almost always will.

I am doing a lecture on pre-writing next week, and I intend to make this point, even though the emphasis of my lecture is on the use of fun drawing activities to prepare children to write and read.  Why?  Because it may be the only time these preschool teachers hear from a pediatric occupational therapist this year, and I want to make a difference.  Understanding the importance of postural control in pre-writing and handwriting could help struggling kids, and make decent writers into stars!

Low Tone and Toilet Training: Learning to Hold It In Long Enough to Make It to The Potty

 

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If your child can’t stay dry at night after 5, or can’t make it to the potty on time, there are a number of things that could be going wrong.  I won’t list them all, but your pediatrician may send you to a pediatric urologist to evaluate whether there are any functional (kidney issues, thyroid issues, adrenal issues etc.) or structural issues ( nerve, tissue malformations).  If testing results are negative, some parents actually feel worse rather than better.

Why?  Because they may be facing a situation that is harder to evaluate and treat:  low tone reducing sensory awareness and pelvic floor control.

Yes, the same problem that causes a child to fall off their chair without notice can give them potty problems.  When their bladder ( which is another muscle, after all) isn’t well toned, it isn’t sending sensory information back to the brain.  The sensors that respond to stretch aren’t firing and thus do not give a child accurate and timely feedback.  It may not let them know it is stretched until it is ready to overflow.  If the pelvic floor muscles are also lax, similar problems.  Older women who have been pregnant know all about what happens when you have a weak pelvic floor.  They feel like they have to “go”  but can’t hold it long enough to get to the bathroom!   Your mom and your daughter could be having the same problems!!

What can you do to help your child?  Some people simply have their kids pee every few hours, and this could work with some kids in some situations.  Not every kid is willing to wear a potty watch (they do make them) and the younger ones may not even be willing to go.  The older ones may be so self-conscious that they restrict fluids all day, but that is not a great idea.  Dehydration can create medical issues that they can’t fathom.  Things like fainting and kidney stones.

Believe it or not, many pediatric urologists don’t want kids to empty their bladder before bedtime.  They want kids to gradually expand the bladder’s ability to hold urine for a full 8-10 hours.  I think this is easier to do during the day, with a fully awake kid and a potty close at hand.  Too many accidents make children and adults discouraged.  Feeling like a failure isn’t good for anyone, and children with low tone already have had frustrating and embarrassing experiences.  They don’t need more of them.

There are a few ideas that can work, but they do take effort and skill on the part of parents:

First, practice letting that bladder fill up just enough for some awareness to arise.  You need to know how much a child is drinking to figure out what the right amount is, and your child has to be able to communicate what they feel.  This is going to be more successful with children with at least a 5-6 year-old cognitive/speech level.  Once they notice what they are feeling down there right before they pee, you impress on them that when they feel this way that they can avoid an accident by voiding as soon as they can.  Try to get them to create their own words to describe the sensation they are noticing.  That fullness/pressure/distention may feel ticklish, it may be felt more in their belly than lower down; all that matters is that you have helped your child identify it and name it.

You have to start with an empty bladder, and measure out what they are drinking so you know approximately how much fluid it takes them to perceive some bladder stretching.    It helps if you can measure it in a way that has meaning for them.  For me, it would be how many mugs of coffee.  For a child it might be how many mini water bottles or small sport bottles until they feel the need to “go”.  You also need to know how long it takes their kidneys to produce that amount of urine.  A potty watch that is set to go off before they feel any sensation isn’t teaching them anything.

The second strategy I like involves building the pelvic floor with Kegels and other moves.  Yup, the same moves that you do to recover after you deliver a baby.  The pelvic floor muscles are mostly the muscles that you contract to stop your urine stream.  Some kids aren’t mentally ready to concentrate on a  stop/start exercise, and some are so shy that they can’t do it with you watching.  But it is the easiest way to build that pelvic floor.  There are other core muscle exercises that can help, like transverse abdominal exercises and pelvic tilt exercises.  Boring for us, and more boring for kids.  But they really do work to build lower abdominal strength.  If you have to create a reward system for them to practice, do it.  If you have to exercise  with them, all the better.  A strong core and a strong pelvic floor is good for all of us!

Finally, don’t forget that the same things that make adult bladders edgy will affect kids.  Caffeine in sodas, for example.  Spicy foods.  Some medications for other issues irritate bladders or increase urine production.  Don’t forget constipation.  A full colon can press on a full bladder and create accidents.

Interested in learning more about toilet training?  My e-book, The Practical Guide to Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone is available on my website, tranquil babies.  Just click ‘e-book” on the ribbon at the top of the home page, and learn about my readiness checklists, and how to deal with everything from pre-training all the way up to using the potty in public!

 

 

 

 

Does An Atypical Pencil Grasp Damage Joints or Support Function In Kids With Hypermobility?

As a pediatric OT, I am often asked to assess and teach proper pencil grasp.  Once you start looking, you see a lot of interesting patterns out there.  When a child clearly has low muscle tone and/or hypermobile joints, the question of what to do about an atypical pencil grasp used to puzzle me.  I could spend weeks, or even months, teaching positioning and developing hand strength in a child, only to find that they simply couldn’t alter their grasp while writing.

Now I triage grasp issues by determining if it is a problem for the child now or in the future.  An atypical pencil grasp can be an acceptable functional compensation or it can be a contributor to later joint damage.  What’s the difference?  You have to know a bit about hand anatomy and function, how to adapt activities, and how to assess the ergonomics of writing.

Children aren’t aware of most of the problems that low tone and/or hypermobility create when they hold a pencil.  They just want to create. The effects of their unique physiology often results in grasp patterns that cause parents pain just to observe; fingers twisted around the shaft of the pencil, thumb joints bent backward, etc.  The kids aren’t usually complaining; their lack of sensory receptor firing at the joints and muscles gives them no clues to the strain they are inducing.  None.  Occasionally children will complain of muscular fatigue or pain after writing a few paragraphs or completing an art project.  For the most part, they are unconcerned and unaware of what is really going on.  For a more detailed explanation, please check out Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children,

Do these funny grasp patterns reduce legibility?  Only sometimes.  There are atypical grasp patterns that are good choices for children with hypermobility.  One is to place the shaft of the pencil directly between the index and third finger, and allow the thumb to support the side of the pencil.  The knuckle joints of those fingers provide more stability than the standard tripod grasp.  I allow preschoolers who need to keep more than 3 fingers on the shaft of the pencil to do so, and wait to see what happens as they develop more overall hand control.  Forcing a tripod grip isn’t always in their best interest now or for the future.

What can be done?  My favorite method to help children with low tone or hypermobility is to look at the problem with both a wide-angle lens and with targeted analysis.  I think about changing overall posture, altering any and all equipment, and examine the mechanics of movement.

These kids often need better proximal support, meaning that changing their chairs and writing/drawing surfaces could result in less strain in their hands and wrists.  To understand one way your whole body is involved in writing, take a look at Better Posture and More Legible Writing With A “Helper Hand” Using writing tools that reduce joint force by enlarging the shaft diameter or changing out lead for gel pens or markers is another strategy.  Take a look at Strengthening A Child’s Pencil Grasp: Three Easy Methods That Work  and Problems With Handwriting? You Need The Best Eraser for more good ideas that actually make a difference.  I will teach kids how to pace themselves to reduce force and fatigue throughout their bodies.  A little awareness can be a big help.  Finally, I may suggest a pencil grip, but I assess this carefully in order to avoid forcing a typical grasp on a child that can’t manage it due to instability or profound weakness.  I might start with the Grotto Grip The Pencil Grip That Strengthens Your Child’s Fingers As They Write., in hopes that we can strengthen and train a stable grip, but I will move on quickly if it doesn’t work within a month or causes more difficulty/pain in writing.

Wondering if there are issues beyond writing that your OT can address?  Check out Hypermobility and Proprioception: Why Loose Joints Create Sensory Processing Problems for Children and Teach Kids With EDS and Low Tone: Don’t Hold It In! for more information.

Atypical pencil grasp can be a problem, but it can also be a solution to a child who is struggling to write and draw in school.  If you have concerns, ask your OT to evaluate and explore the issue this week!

 

Is Your Gifted Child Also Your Most Strong Willed Child ?

Parents of some gifted children know that this gift comes with more than a quick intellect.  It can come with a will of iron and incredible emotional range.  Gifted children can be expansively happy one moment, and intensely sad the next.  No, it isn’t bipolar disorder, and it probably isn’t ADD (these kids are misdiagnosed at an alarming rate).  Gifted children have an emotional capacity that often matches or exceeds their intellect.  Here is why.

Their brains are different.  They are qualitatively different, meaning that they notice, synthesize, and experience information differently, not just “more” or “more like an older child” than other children.  Their brains work differently, but they are trying to comprehend how others understand it and why they behave as they do.  When they cannot or when they insist on the world working their way, things can get explosive.

Yes, the same brain that allows a 4 year-old to read chapter books to her preschool class without having been taught to read is also feeling and connecting emotional information differently from her peers as well.  She can’t “get over it” when arbitrary rules do not allow her to take materials out of the reference section of the library, or when she isn’t allowed to finish watching a documentary on sea creatures because you have to take her brother to swim practice.  Functional imaging studies have been reported to see much more diverse brain activity in gifted individuals during simple tasks.  They light up like Christmas trees because they are incredible thinkers.  All that thinking can get them in trouble with the day-to-day world of rules and behavior.

The amazing brains of gifted children are understood to have what one researcher calls “overexcitabilities”.  Only one is intellectual excitability.  The others include motor and sensory excitability.  This can lend itself to some explosive tantrums in toddlerhood and even disabling complaints of clothing or lights being far too irritating and distracting.  The same child that can explain to you how the electoral college works can be sidelined by the scratchy tag in his shirt!

Gifted children with strong wills aren’t always appreciated for their determination and their energy.  They balk at instructions, refuse assistance when they need it, and aren’t easily distracted from their desires.  I think that the first step in handling the emotional over excitability of a gifted child is to accept how difficult it is as a parent or a teacher, and then learn about how this aspect of giftedness works.  From there it is a matter of building skills in self-control and social/communication skills.  Children do not have to get their way because their IQ is in the stratosphere.  They still have to avoid aggression, including verbal aggression (something teenage gifted kids are virtual masters of).

My perspective is that gifted children need more help with social skills since they often have such disparity between their cognitive capacity and their emotional abilities.  Feeling responsible for the world’s troubles doesn’t mean that you are, and knowing that the rules are arbitrary doesn’t mean you have the authority to change them.  Parents who teach their children how to navigate these problems will give a huge gift to their children.  Children need to understand that they aren’t bad, but they are different.  And their behavior is connected to the way their brain works and always will work.  They need to navigate their path within the wider world, making friends and dealing with authorities that do not see things in the same way.  The world may not always understand gifted people, but if gifted people understand themselves, it could be a happier and calmer place for everyone.