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Cases of early motor delays growing but most parents remain unaware

The number of cases of early motor delays in infants is growing, but only about a third of parents recognize the signs, according to a recent national survey sponsored by Pathways Awareness Foundation.

The survey found that 67 percent of parents didn't know that their child should be lifting up his head and pushing up on his arms by the end of three months - and only five percent of them would contact a medical professional with their concerns.

"Parents tend to wait and see," said Dr. John Sarwark of Children's Memorial Hospital's department of Pediatric Orthopedics. "But if parents haven't seen the baby lift its head or shoulders within a couple of weeks after the three-month mark, it's an important topic to bring up with their health care professional."

The term "early motor delay" describes a wide variety of conditions, ranging from low muscle tone to cerebral palsy. Each year more than 400,000 children in the U.S. are at risk for an early motor delay, and actual incidences are one in 40, a 150 percent increase from 25 years ago, a rate even higher than incidences of other accelerating conditions like autism. The increase is due to several factors, including a higher survival rate of preterm babies, increased numbers of twins and triplets (who may be crowded in the uterus) and increased survival of children with cardiac, neurological and genetic disorders. A motor delay is not a disease, it is not inherited, and it rarely includes a mental condition.

The good news is that most cases are not serious, and with physical therapy and a strategy of tummy time while awake most children catch up quickly. Also, numerous studies show that parents, when they know what to look for, are as good or better than professionals at evaluating their child since they see their children daily in a variety of situations.

"Acting early can make a big difference in children's most basic life skills - moving, using their hands, walking, talking, and eating." said Dr. Sarwark. "Many parents simply don't know what to look for, or that they should take their child in for an evaluation as soon as possible."

Gay Girolami, executive director and head therapist with Pathways Center, a leading pediatric therapy clinic located in Chicago, agreed with Dr. Sarwark.

"Therapy helps babies with delays get up to speed as quickly and easily as possible," said Girolami. "The only thing waiting does is make it harder for the child in the long run."

Signs to look for
Pediatric medical professionals and physical therapists agree that parent reports are helpful and reliable, so parents should have the confidence to bring issues to the attention of professionals as soon as possible. At the end of three months (adjusted for pre-term birth) parents should look for the following:

While lying on tummy, baby...

  • Pushes up on arms
  • Lifts and holds head up

Signs of concern:

  • Difficulty lifting head
  • Stiff legs with little or no movement
  • Pushes back with head

Visuals, including a growth and development chart and more information about developmental warning signs are available on the Pathways Web site, www.pathwaysawareness.org and by calling Pathways' "parent answered" help line, 1-800-955-CHILD (2445).

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