If you have ever met an occupational therapist (OT), you know that we do not find people jobs. The title of our profession can be misleading. We work very closely with physical therapists to rehabilitate adults, children, and babies alike. While physical therapists work on strengthening and exercises, occupational therapists work on functional skills and activities or “occupations.”
The Occupation of Being a Baby
So, what are the occupations of a premature baby? As a pediatric OT working in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), I get asked this question often. The most critical “occupation” of a newborn is the ability to suck from a nipple and eat. OTs spend a lot of time working with babies on feeding when they are premature or delayed and it does not come naturally for them. In the NICU, we work on positioning the baby so their muscles and joints develop symmetrically. We also teach baby massage to parents to help with bonding, digestion, relaxation, weight gain, development, and moving bowels.
When we work with toddlers and preschoolers, our focus is a little different, but we are still addressing the child’s occupation. We call this early intervention. In this case, it is play, reaching developmental milestones, starting to communicate, and practicing some self-care skills. We work with children with all sorts of disabilities and diagnoses. Some children just have a developmental delay and we are working with them to help them catch up.
Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions about young children and occupational therapy is that they need a specific diagnosis before we can treat them. While we do need a doctor’s order to evaluate and treat, we do not need a specific diagnosis for occupational therapy. The “diagnosis” could be something along the lines of “developmental delay,” and then therapy can begin. The first three years is a critical time for development because so many skills emerge during this time period. Spending time waiting on a waiting list for a developmental pediatrician or neurologist is time that can be spent receiving early intervention. Getting a diagnosis can occur in accordance with starting occupational therapy, and we can start addressing the skills immediately.
During an occupational therapy evaluation, we typically observe play, movement, and interactions and assess milestones, fine motor, gross motor, visual motor, and sensory processing skills. We also sometimes do some standardized assessments. There are so many opportunities to enrich children in the first three years, and it is a great time to get the optimal benefit out of therapy.
Pediatric occupational therapy can be provided through private rehabs, out-patient clinics, and early intervention through the state. Early intervention OTs will visit the child at home, day care, or pre-school and provide therapy in their environment, working on their “occupations.” Parents can find information about early intervention by visiting their state’s government website.