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At Home Activities to Encourage Locomotor Development for Infants with Down Syndrome

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Jacqueline Chinappi • updated: 3/2/2012

Infants who have Down syndrome are often delayed in developing locomotor skills. With the help of a physical therapist and home exercises, these babies will gradually learn to crawl and walk. Learn more about infant locomotor development and strategies that can help your child.

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    Down syndrome in infants is determined by an extra 21st chromosome, which causes moderate to severe cognitive and developmental delays. The effects on infant locomotor development usually result in a child learning to crawl and walk at a slower rate than that of neurotypical children.

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    Overview of Down Syndrome and Motor Development Complications

    Due to the physical problems that characterize Down syndrome, the disorder can profoundly affect the time frame in which an infant develops gross motor skills. While typically developing children are nearly always walking by the age of 18 months, those with Down syndrome may not master the locomotor function of walking until after the age of two years. The physical issues that develop as a result of this condition include muscle weakness, loose ligaments and joints, and poor muscle tone. Because these children also have problems with posture, the effects of Down syndrome on infant locomotor development can eventually lead to gait abnormalities and chronic foot pain without the intervention of physical therapy.

    Infants with Down syndrome are curious about the world around them, and they do desire to crawl and walk in spite of their physical limitations. Therapeutic exercises and techniques are helpful for these infants, as they prevent babies from developing compensatory movements that result in long-term gross motor issues. A qualified physical therapist can guide an infant with Down syndrome in acquiring the skills needed for appropriate locomotor functioning.

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    Physical Therapy Exercises

    Physical therapy exercises are not intended to pressure infants with Down syndrome into crawling or walking before they are developmentally ready. Rather, these techniques are designed to encourage proper body positioning and movement. Parents can also learn methods that help minimize the effects of Down syndrome on infant locomotor development.

    Examples of physical therapy exercises for developing locomotor skills are as follows:

    1) Assist the child in learning to stand with his or her feet pointed forward and knees slightly bent, with legs and feet directly underneath the hips. This discourages infants with Down syndrome from compensating for their weak muscles by walking with locked knees, wide stance, and feet pointed outward--a gait that can result in orthopedic problems.

    2) Encourage the infant to crawl using both knees, rather than moving across the floor on one foot and one knee. This skill is useful as a child with Down syndrome later learns to climb stairs using his or her knees.

    3) Facilitate good posture in infants by teaching them how to sit with the spine and pelvis aligned. Young children with Down syndrome often sit with a rounded trunk and tilted pelvis, so physical therapists will need to provide trunk and waist support when helping a child to develop proper body alignment.

    4) Motivate the child to crawl or take steps by placing a favorite object or toy in an area that can be easily be reached through locomotion.

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    Parents who seek help for Down syndrome in infants should keep in mind that while it will take longer for their babies to crawl and walk, locomotor skills will eventually develop. Always be encouraging, patient, and diligent when working with these infants on locomotor exercises and activities.