Babies benefit from early assessment
RESEARCH | When it comes to at-risk children who can be helped by early intervention, the key word is “early”—not only for providing the intervention but also for identifying the risk.
This is the essence of work being conducted by Michele Lobo, a postdoctoral researcher in UD’s Infant Motor Behavior Laboratory, who has won the Lolas E. Halverson Motor Development Young Investigator Award from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. The association is the largest of five national groups that make up the Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.
The Halverson Award is given for research that makes a significant contribution to the field of motor development. It is awarded based on the innovative nature of the work, its impact on the field or its impact on the application of knowledge.
Lobo, who is working with Cole Galloway, associate professor of physical therapy, is identifying precursors to later cognitive and motor development in infants. By making that identification as soon as possible, appropriate interventions can be designed and implemented early enough to make a difference, she says.
“One of the problems we face in facilitating the development of motor and cognitive skills in infants is that we miss a large window of opportunity while we’re waiting to determine which babies are at risk,” Lobo says. “Children at risk of delays are often not recognized until they miss established milestones.
“For example, the normal onset of walking is between 10 and 14 months, but even some infants who don’t walk until 16 months may not have long-term impairments. So, generally, a child is 18 months old before the problem is addressed. My interest lies in determining in the first months of life which children are at risk for specific developmental delays in reaching and grasping tasks.”
Lobo’s award-winning research, published in the journal Child Development, looked at how postural and object-oriented experiences advance early reaching, object exploration and what is called “means-end” behavior. She explains that reaching is important because its onset, which usually occurs at about 4 months of age, changes how babies interact with their caregivers and with the world.
There are several prerequisites for the all-important reaching milestone, she says, including cognitive understanding, motivation and postural control.
The study involved three groups of infants, each exposed to a different set of experiences with their parents in addition to their typical daily activities. The first group, the control population, was offered only social experience; the second group was exposed to activities designed to develop postural control; and the third group was provided with object-oriented play activities.
Lobo found that the two groups exposed to the experimental interventions demonstrated reaching ability earlier than the control group.
“Our findings are really exciting because this is a great example of the specific process by which early intervention can make a difference,” she says.
Galloway praises Lobo’s work and her talents.
“Dr. Lobo has just the right mix of skills to be a national leader in pediatric rehabilitation research,” he says. “She’s part developmental psychologist, part pediatric therapist and part businesswoman.
“She’s also passionate about the hidden lives of babies and families, which is essential to produce scientifically rigorous yet clinically applicable programs of research. It’s Michele’s ability to translate a complex developmental issue into a quantitative study, and then pull off the data collections and analysis, that enables her research to impact both the scientific community and the community at large.”
Article by Diane Kukich, AS ’73, ’84M