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Research on motor skills in infants expanded to at-risk children

Jill Heathcock, left, a pediatric physical therapist and UD graduate student, works with baby Alejandro Lobo and mother, Michele Lobo, as James C. (Cole) Galloway, assistant professor of physical therapy, looks on during a session in the Motor Behavior Laboratory.
2:12 p.m., March 26, 2004--Groundbreaking work on the development of motor skills in infants by James C. (Cole) Galloway, University of Delaware assistant professor of physical therapy, is being expanded to include at-risk children.

For the last three years, Galloway and his graduate students have been studying the early motor skills of infants and have found that the encouragement of movement very early in life can spur physical development.

Until now, the research team has studied only typically developing infants.

Galloway and Jill Heathcock, a pediatric physical therapist and graduate student in UD’s Biomechanics and Movement Science program, believe the team now has enough data to expand the research to infants born prematurely, or pre-term, and at high risk of future coordination problems.

As a result, the team is seeking volunteers from among families in the community to participate in the study.

“We would like to look at the effect of movement training with infants who are born with significant risk for coordination problems in the future,” Galloway said. “We believe that if we can start consistent rehabilitation in the first months of life, attacking the problem early and intensely, it could have a positive impact.”

They will ask families to begin the program when the children are about 6 to 8 weeks old and have been cleared by a pediatrician.

Families will be trained to play with their babies in specific ways each day in the home. They will visit the UD Department of Physical Therapy’s Motor Behavior Laboratory in the John McKinly Laboratory building for follow-up visits about every four weeks until the baby is 6 months old so that progress can be measured.

“Our projects are always part clinical science and part watching babies grow,” Galloway said. “We get to know the families and their babies, and they get to know us. In addition, we get to enjoy the babies’ development right along with the families. At the core, our lab loves babies.”

Galloway’s research centers on the way infants adapt their spontaneous arm flapping into purposeful movements, such as reaching. Seemingly random flapping is actually an important form of exploration, which helps guide brain development and skill learning.

Where flapping movements were once seen as reflexive and random, Galloway said, they might now provide therapists with a new avenue to encourage exploration and potentially accelerate the development of reaching.

Early assessment and treatment is key to easing developmental problems later in life, Galloway said, and the researchers are now more confident there is therapeutic value in providing infants ongoing opportunities for exploratory movements within the first weeks of life.

“The hope is that at risk infants, such as pre-term babies, will build brains with greater exploratory capabilities,” he said. “Because development builds on the past, a small increase in the ability to explore objects early on has the potential to have enormous impact on a child’s later level of function.”

Families interested in participating in the study of at-risk infants should contact Galloway at 831-3697 or Heathcock at the Infant Motor Behavior Laboratory at 831-3214.

Article by Neil Thomas
Photo by Kathy Atkinson

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