Category Archives: toddlers

The Subtle Ways Chronic Medical Care Affects Infant and Toddler Development

 

hannah-tasker-333889-unsplashThe good news:  more and more extremely premature and medically complex babies are surviving.  The bad news: there is a cost to the extended and complex treatment that saves their lives and helps them to thrive.  This post is an effort to put out in the open what pediatric therapists know only too well goes on after the medical crisis (or crises) are over.   Only when you know what you are seeing can you change it.

This is not an exhaustive list; it is a list of the major complications of a complex medical course of treatment on behavior:

  1. Your child is likely aware that their coughing, crying, or other reactions will stop parents and even some medical professionals in their tracks.  I have had kids who didn’t get what they wanted learn to hold their breath until they turned blue.  If you have worked in medicine, you should know that if a child does this and faints, they will immediately begin breathing again.  It doesn’t scare me.  But it can terrify family members, teachers, and other caregivers.  They will stop whatever they were doing and may give in to any demand right away.  Many kids learn who will take the bait impressively fast.  It is very damaging to a child’s relationships and destroys their ability to handle frustration.
  2. Invasive treatments have been done while distracting your child and often without involving your child in any way.  This has taught your child not to attend to an adult’s actions or words in the same way a typically developing child will do naturally.  Since learning language and fine motor skills are highly dependent on observation, these skills are directly impacted by this consequence.  This pattern can be reversed, but it is highly resistant and has to be addressed directly.  Don’t think it will simply go away as your child recovers medically.  It doesn’t.  As soon as your child can be involved in self-care any way (holding a diaper, etc) you need to engage your chid and demonstrate the expectation that they respond and interact to the degree that they can manage.  All the time.
  3. Typical toddler attitudes are ignored because “He has been through so much already”  If your child is kicking you while you change his diaper ( a real question to me by a private duty nurse) then you react the same way you would if your child didn’t have a G-tube or a tracheostomy.  The answer is “NO; we don’t kick in this house”.  You don’t get into why, or what is bothering them right away.  The immediate answer is “no kicking”.  Not now, not ever.  Aggression isn’t unusual or abnormal, but it has to be addressed.  With understanding and as little anger as you can manage as your beloved child is aiming for your face with his foot.
  4. Children who are unable to speak to engage you or able to move around their home will come up with other methods to gain and hold your attention.  Some children throw things they don’t want and HOPE that you make it into a big deal.  Or they throw to gain attention when they should be using eye contact, vocalization or signing.  They wanted your attention, and they got it.  Without speaking, signing or any other appropriate method of communication.  This is not play, this is not healthy interaction.  This is atypical past 10-12 months, and should be dealt with by ignoring or removing the items, and teaching “all done” or “no” in whatever method the child can use.  And then teaching the correct methods of gaining attention and rewarding it immediately.  The biggest roadblock is that if one caregiver takes the “throwing” bait, the child will dig in and keep using that method.  Adults have to act as team managers, and if they fail, the behavior keeps on going.
  5. Children can request being carried when they don’t need the assistance, but they want the attention.  This can delay their advancement of mobility skills.  One of my clients has learned which adults will hold his hand even though he can walk unaided.  He likes the attention.  The clinic PT doesn’t know this is happening, even though the family brings him to therapy.  Like a game of telephone, each caregiver assumes that the child needs the help he is requesting.  He is not developing confidence in his own home, which should be the first place to feel safe and independent.  He depends on adults to feel safe.  Oops.

 

In many ways, my job as an OTR is to alter some of these behaviors to allow normal development to take place.  Long after those medical crises are terrible memories, the consequences of those days, weeks, months and sometimes years can have significant effects on learning and independence.

Looking for more ideas to help children grow and develop?  Read Need to Support A Child’s Independence? Offer to Help Them! and The Not-So-Secret Solution for Your Child With Motor And Sensory Issues: Dycem.  Do you have issues with your child’s siblings?  Read Are Your Other Children Resentful of Your Special Needs Child?

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Does Your Special Needs Child Have a “Two-tude”? Its Not Just the Age; its the Circumstances

 

patrick-fore-557736I spend a lot of my work week with toddlers, and they can be a challenge.  One minute sunny, the next screaming because their cookie broke.  Special needs toddlers can have a “tude as well, but many professionals sweep it under the rug.  They tell parents that this is normal, and that they should be grateful that their child is going through a completely normal stage of development.

Except that many parents who have already raised typically-developing kids KNOW that there is a difference with this child.  It could be the intensity of the ‘tude, or the frequency of the meltdowns, or the types of events that trigger the tantrums.  OR ALL OF THEM!  Parents know that this doesn’t feel the same, but they often shut up when they are told that it is so normal.  Perhaps their eyes and ears and memory isn’t correct.

They aren’t wrong.  Their perception that something is a bit different can be totally correct.  And the reason(s) are quite obvious to me.

Special needs kids come in an almost endless combination of needs.  Some are physical, some are communication needs, and some are cognitive or social skill needs.  Some are all of these.  Having challenges in moving, speaking, comprehending language and/or concepts or struggling to interact will create more frustration for every single day of a child’s life.  That’s the reality of disability.

The image of the placid and sweet special needs child, patiently waiting to be assisted and supported is just that: an image.  Most kids bump into frustrating barriers every day.  The toddler that has just learned to walk but can’t run, the toddler that is talking or signing but still isn’t understood by their older brother, the toddler that cannot handle a change in routines…it goes on and on.

Typical toddlers spend less time frustrated that they are unable to accomplish simple skills.  The typical 14 month-old that can’t tell you what he wants becomes the 18-month old that can say “cakker, pease” for “cracker please”.  A special needs child could be 4 years old and still struggling to explain that he wants another cracker.  That is a long time to be frustrated.  The typical 26 month-old that can’t run after their brother in the backyard becomes a runner at 30 months.  A special needs child may not run for years.  That is a long time to be left in the dust when everyone is running.  Is there any wonder that parents see more frustration, more tears, more stubbornness?

My saddest story of failed inclusion is when a family placed their special needs child in a toddler development group with mobile kids.  Even though this child had a personal aide, he still watched as his peers got up from the snack table and ran outside.  They left him with the aide, who then carried him outside so he could WATCH his peers climb and run.  He became distraught at home when he was left alone in a room.  A puddle of tears.  It was so sad to see.  No one had thought of the emotional cost of inclusion to this toddler, only the social and academic benefits.

What can be done?

I teach families the Happiest Toddler on the Block strategies as soon as they are appropriate.  Dr. Karp’s techniques build a child’s skills while enhancing interpersonal connections.  Yes, sometimes you have to provide consequences for aggression, but mostly it is about building frustration tolerance and emotional intelligence.  For everyone.  I use these techniques all day long.  I could never handle so many toddlers for so many years without them!

Looking for more information on special needs toddlers?  Read Need to Support A Child’s Independence? Offer to Help Them! and Safety Awareness With Your Hypermobile Child? Its Not a Big Thing, Its the Biggest Thing.

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Need to Support A Child’s Independence? Offer to Help Them!

 

irina-blok-192240-unsplashI know; it sounds like I am being sarcastic.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Instead of telling children to “Give it another try” or “I know you can do it”, offering help to a young child can have the paradoxical effect of eliciting more perseverance and attention.

It really isn’t all that complicated:  think of your own responses for a moment.  If you were trying to fill out your tax forms, and ran into difficulties, you might call an accountant for help.  If their response was “Just keep trying; I know you can figure it out!” you probably wouldn’t be excited to try again.  You might feel even more agitated.  I know what I would be thinking:”If I knew what to do, I wouldn’t have called you int he first place!”

If your accountant said “Let me take a look.  Oh, I underlined some of the important numbers.  You got stuck with line 32b, right?” you could see the issue in a new light, and be able to come to a solution without having to walk away or tear up the form.  Your accountant used their advanced knowledge to set you up for success.

We need to do the same thing for children.  Telling them we have faith in them, or insisting that they need to try again when they clearly don’t know how to alter their actions, is not kind or even very educational.  It leaves them feeling abandoned under stress.  Even if we know they can solve for X, they aren’t doing it now.

For the very youngest kids, I have a special solution.  You “wiggle it”.  Young children don’t know how we understand how to do so many things well.  When they get stuck opening containers or assembling objects, I offer to “wiggle it”.  By demonstrating that the container does indeed open, or that the bead will fit on the string, I am assuring them that they could be successful.  More importantly, I am demonstrating the correct grasp pattern and stabilization method.  And finally, I am rebooting their motor plan and their frustration level.  Just handing the object over to me reduces their agitation.  When children aren’t so frustrated, they can think and create better motor patterns.’

All this from a little “wiggling”.

To read more about building confidence and coordination, read For Kids With Sensory Issues and Low Tone, Add Resistance Instead of Hand-Over-Hand Assistance and Why Telling Your Child “It’s OK” Doesn’t Calm Him Down (And What To Do Instead)

Safety Awareness With Your Hypermobile Child? Its Not a Big Thing, Its the Biggest Thing

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Therapists always try hard to be optimistic when discussing their pediatric client’s future.  Why not?  Kids have amazing potential, and we aren’t fortune tellers; there are so many things that can go right.

As therapists, we also should share the reality of how bad choices create unfortunate consequences.  Among them are the long-term results of falls, especially head injuries.  Kids fall, kids trip, kids walk into things.  All kids, and for much of early childhood.  The hypermobile child will have more episodes of injury, often has greater injury occurring in each episode, and frequently experiences a slower or less complete recovery from injury.  This isn’t a criticism of parents, kids, or even acute medical care.  It is the reality of living with a condition, often a syndrome, that has effects beyond just loose joints.

This can include connective tissue disorders that create weak skin, ligaments, and tendons, decreased pain registration, delayed protective reactions when falling, and cognitive or behavioral complications that make learning and controlling actions more difficult.  Hypermobile kids often spend more years in an unstable state in which they need assistance and supervision.  And more years when they are vulnerable to serious injury.  A head injury or a spine injury isn’t an “unfortunate” event.  It is frequently a life-changing event.  The course of education and employment can be forever altered.  For the worse.

In a clinic or school setting, your therapist is bound to guidelines that indemnify them and the facility. While they cannot control what happens at home, you should know what to do to make your home safer for a child with hypermobility.  It begins with your environment, then you change your responses, then your build  your child’s ability to incorporate safety awareness into their day.

  • Create a safe but accessible home.  This expands on “baby proofing” to include railings set at a height that allow your child to push up rather than hang on them.  Removal of loose rugs and adding padded floor surfaces in common areas, especially areas where they are climbing or running.  Bathrooms are the location for many injuries once children become independent in toileting or bathing.  Instead of supervising them forever, create a safe place with hidden grab bars (there are toilet paper holders and towel racks that are actually grab bars) and non-slip flooring.  Place needed items within easy reach without climbing.
  • Teach safe movement from the start.  Children that learn how to move versus children that are passively moved will have more safety awareness.  For children that still need a lot of help, narrate your moves and weave in safety messages.  It will sink in.  Finally, don’t allow unsafe moves, even if they didn’t hurt themselves.  Tell them to try it again the safe way.  Children are unable to anticipate the results of their actions.  This is why we don’t let 12 year-olds drive or let 5 year-olds cross the street alone.  Sometimes the reason they do things our way is because we said so.  Until they are old enough to understand the “why”.
  • Share your thought processes with children as soon as they can wrap their heads around things.  Even kids in preschool can follow along with the idea that too many “boo-boos” will stop them from being able to play.  Older kids can learn that the right chair helps them stave off fatigue until they finish a game.
  • Ask your therapists for specific safety advice, and then carefully think through their answers.  The truth is that some therapists are more safety-aware than others.  I have been told that I am one of the most vocal therapists on a team when regarding safety issues.  Perhaps it is because I spent 10 years working in adult rehab, treating patients for problems that started decades before I met them.  I have seen what overuse and poor design has cost people.  By then it is often too late to do much more than compensation and adaptation.  I am committed to prevention with my pediatric clients.  The cost is too high not to say something and say it loud.

For more information and ideas about helping your child with hypermobility, read Is Your Hypermobile Child Frequently In An Awkward Position? No, She Really DOESN’T Feel Any Pain From Sitting That Way and Should Your Hypermobile Child Play Sports?

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Afraid to Toilet Train? Prepare Your Child… and Prepare Yourself

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I spend an extra 30 minutes at the end of a session this week helping a mom build her courage and confidence so that she felt ready to start toilet training soon.  Her child is over 3, has sensory and motor issues, but shows tons of signs for readiness:  dry diapers for increasingly long periods, tells adults when he needs to “go”, able to manage clothing, etc.  He also has no confidence in his abilities, rarely likes change or challenge, and is super-sensitive to altering routines and using new environments.  This isn’t going to be seamless.

It isn’t clear who is the more prepared individual, but I think it could be the child.

This mom read my favorite marketplace book on training “Oh Crap”, and she needs to re-read it with an eye to the many ways in which her child fits the picture of a child that could NEVER be fully ready to train.  This species is so averse to novelty and challenge that no treat or toy is a great enough reward.  Nothing is more frightening to them than failure, and you simply cannot miss the diaper.  It is familiar, fail-proof, and allows children to never have to monitor their body signals or stop watching Paw Patrol to go to the potty.  Ever.

This child is likely to be experiencing the normal sensations of fullness and pressure (as the bladder and rectum fill) as uncomfortable and a little scary.  This interoceptive input can be one that children are sensitive to in the same way that the find seams on clothes or lying down for a diaper change unpleasant.  He requires a lot of support to tolerate and process tactile input and vestibular input, so it isn’t exactly surprising that he would find interoceptive sensation difficult to handle.  Adding a new routine for dealing with elimination, placing it in a room he rarely uses (the bathroom) and being old enough to know that he could “fail” and old enough to absorb outside comments about being “dirty” is more than enough to make this harder than it should be.

My suggestions to this mom included:

  • Adding more vocabulary to her discussions about toilet training.  Speaking about the feelings of pressure and fullness, the actions of pushing the poop out gently, and cleaning/wiping with clear messaging that this is a learning experience that nobody does perfectly.  Hearing that his parents had “accidents” when they were little, and that every child will have accidents, well, this could really help both of them.
  • Dressing him lightly, or choosing to go naked or just underpants (I like two layers of training pants if they still fit his tiny heine!) so that there are fewer barriers to making it to the potty means she may need to shop for training garments.
  • Planning the environment if she is going to let him go naked.  All living events except sleeping need to happen in places where accidents can be cleaned up easily.  She isn’t averse to staining the carpet, but I assured her that her child knows not to spill things on that carpet.  He is too old not to interpret soiling it as a failure.  When she runs to clean it up, he will feel badly.  If she doesn’t have to rush and shows no stress, he will relax about the almost inevitable accident.  He NEEDS  the confidence to move forward.
  • Consider more media about toileting and the arc of learning.  Most children don’t like to talk about things that distress them.  But they LOVE to read about others who are going through the same things.  I suggested that she weave in some new books about characters who are learning to use the toilet, and add comments about their feelings as they learn.  This would include how excited and proud the character is.  Proud can be a new word in his vocabulary!

 

Training a child that has low tone?  I wrote an e-book for you!

The Practical Guide to Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone is filled with preparation ideas, strategies to address the common issues of sensory processing limitations and the behavioral effects of low tone, and even includes a guide to building readiness instead of waiting for it to arrive!  You can find it on my website Tranquil Babies,  on Amazon  , and on a terrific site for occupational therapy materials, Your Therapy Source

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Does Your Child Still Chew on Clothes or Toys?

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Babies love to munch on their toys.  They nibble at book bindings, chew the heck out of their loveys, and some little ones really love to chew their pacifiers.  As they grow, most children let go of this behavior.  Chewing and biting for sensory exploration and state modulation diminishes and a child’s behavior evolves into thinking, communicating, and smooth internal state regulation.

But some older kids slip their sleeve or shirt collar into their mouth whenever they can, and are left with a soggy mess by the end of the day.  They suck on their markers or the grocery store cart.  Their toys and pencils are ragged witnesses to the continuing use of oral stimulation, long past the first year or two of life.

Why do they do this?

Some kids are seeking to fill an oral cavity that is less stimulated due to low muscle tone, hypermobility and/or limited sensory discrimination.  Shoving a sleeve in there provides that sensory boost as muscles, skin and ligaments stretch.  Children that need more sensory input due to inactivity, boredom, physical limitations and illness use oral input as an always-available and independent option.  Other kids use biting and chewing to modulate their level of arousal (and open their eustachian tubes, BTW!).  While most OTs know about the modulation piece, the way biting and chewing impact hearing and even vestibular health isn’t so commonly considered.  Biting can stem nystagmus for some kids, and it can lessen dizziness or help a child move their eyes apart as they watch objects in the distance (divergence) for reading the board and for sports.  For kids that use biting well after the toddler biting phase should be over, evaluating any ocular (eye) or ENT issues can be helpful.

Exploring the level of stress in a child’s life outside the classroom or therapy clinic is another consideration.  Biting and chewing are calming proprioceptive inputs that a child can use when they are anxious or fearful, or just uncertain.  It may not be possible to impact the stress of divorce, moving to a new home, or adding a newborn to the family, but appreciating these situations as factors in behavior can improve how families, teachers and therapists respond.  Older children could be trying to modulate their level of arousal without causing trouble by running, jumping or yelling.  Chewing is less likely to be disruptive in a classroom setting.

What Can You Do Once a Chewing Habit is Established?

Once oral sensory seeking behavior takes hold, it isn’t easy to stop.  It can be very satisfying and accessible, particularly for young children.  Addressing the core cause or causes means taking things one step at a time.  Many children do well with a multi-sensory diet added to their daily activities.  More physical activity or more frequent activity breaks can help.  I find that more vestibular input in particular can be powerful.  Using whistles can be helpful when chosen well and supervised for safety and overall modulation.   Some children need to become more aware of their behaviors; older kids can use some of the “How Does Your Engine Run?” concepts to take responsibility for their behaviors and independently seek alternative sensory input.  Kids that learn mindfulness techniques can incorporate those into their program as well.

The use of chewing objects can help, but there are three concerns that have to be addressed:  hygiene, safety, and speech.  A child that sucks or chews on any object isn’t going to monitor its cleanliness, so make sure you use non-toxic soap that is carefully rinsed off.  A chewing necklace should never be worn while sleeping due to safety issues, nor can it be used when it could become snagged on branches or sports equipment.  And finally, having something in the mouth, whether it is a pacifier or a chewing toy, will minimize and alter speech if it isn’t removed for communication.  Never allow a child who is talking or learning to talk to devolve into head nods so they can keep chewing.

Looking for more information on sensory issues?  Read Sensory Sensitivity In Toddlers: Why Responding Differently to “Yucky!” Will Help Your Child and Weaning the Pacifier From An Older Child.

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Are Your Other Children Resentful of Your Special Needs Child?

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This is something that is hardly ever spoken of, but it happens in many, if not most families.  The good news is that it is normal, it doesn’t predict future behavior, and you can address it without sending everyone to a psychiatrist.

The time and energy demands of a special needs child aren’t always in proportion to a child’s delays.  Surgeries or therapy intensives can pull you away for weeks.  The little things, like therapy always being at the same time as someone’s soccer games, are actually harder for siblings over time.  Even sharing lap time can be tough for a toddler who was, until recently, able to climb into your arms anytime.

Remember, toddlers naturally see the world as theirs, and assume that they and their actions are a part of everything that happens to them, good or bad.  They will not be able to fully comprehend why their sibling may take a long time to be able to play with them.  Older children may perceive that it isn’t “nice” to complain about their perceived lack of parental attention, but they feel it.

What can you do?  I believe that quality time is the answer, but only part of the answer.  When you are planning, engaging in, and reminiscing about the quality time that you spent with your child, regardless of whether they are 18 months old or 18 years old, you approach it as if you were in a long-distance love affair.

If you were dating someone across the country, you would talk about the upcoming rendezvous with excitement, you would savor every short minute of it, and you would reconnect afterward, reminding your beloved of the wonderful time you had, and what you hope will happen the next time.

The twist that I learned from Dr. Harvey Karp’s wonderful book The Happiest Toddler on the Block is to put into words exactly how you FEEL about your child and the terrific plans (or event that just passed).  Saying “I am SO, SO, looking forward to reading our special book tonight!” with a smile can mean that a child will put up with your absence at that soccer game.  Reminding a child “Remember when we went out for ice cream alone, nobody else?  That was fun!” helps them handle the fact that they are bathing with the nanny or big sister while you bathe and dress your special needs child.  Even responding with sympathy:”I know…I am sad too that I can’t go with you to your playdate because I have to take Jonah to PT” and using a tone of voice, facial expression and body language that messages real regret; this will help your child handle their feelings without becoming aggressive or shamed for their feelings.

I think this works extremely well with your special needs child’s siblings.  Kids need to hear how happy you are to be with them, that you look forward and backward with pleasure.  They know on some level, even as toddlers, that they don’t get all your attention.  But they really want and need to hear that you love being with them as much as they love being with you.  It could be an ice cream run just with them.  A game of catch just with them.  Reading a new book together.  Almost anything will work, as long as you elaborate on your feelings as well as talking about the event itself.  Mentioning your excitement or good memories during a calm time works better than wedging the comments in between correcting actions and giving consequences.  A casual mention of your future plans can smooth out a lot of feathers!

Looking for more information on parenting when you have a special needs child?  Read How An Aging-In-Place Specialist Can Help You Design an Accessible Home for Your Child and Universal Design For Parents of Special Needs Kids: It’s Important for You Too! and also The Cube Chair: Your Special Needs Toddler’s New Favorite Seat!

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