Thriving and Surviving: Helping Pre-term Children Catch Up

More pre-term infants are surviving than ever before. Unfortunately, morbidity rates haven’t kept pace with declining mortality rates. The first priority of healthcare professionals is to support breathing and other vital functions until babies are able to carry them out on their own. Attempts are made to raise preemies in an environment where they can grow and develop as they would in the womb, but it’s not always possible. Babies who are born very premature and tiny are at significant risk for having neurological impairments like cerebral palsy. They also have greater rates of asthma, autism spectrum disorders, sensory dysfunction, and learning disabilities.

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Developmental delays are common, but with early intervention, many will catch up to peers. The catch-up game can take quite a few years, though, and may require a team that’s just as diverse as the one that ensured that the child made it past those first days and weeks of life. Here’s a look at some of the team players.

Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists

Physical therapists help children develop strength and improve their mobility and gross motor skills. At the early stages of development, this includes holding the head up, sitting, and pulling to a standing position.

Occupational therapy goals can include improving fine motor skills and taking steps toward self-care skills, from feeding to managing clothing. Since the job of early childhood is play, an occupational therapist will help children develop the skills they need for healthy play, either independently or with other children. OTs may work in a day care or hospital setting or do home visits.

Explore Physical Therapy Career Paths and Occupational Therapy Career Paths

Speech Language Pathologists

Speech language pathologists can help youngsters with a number of issues, from forming sounds to developing vocabulary and responding appropriately in diverse social situations. Clients may have cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders, hearing impairments, or speech delay. A career as a speech pathologist requires education at the master’s level. However, people can enter the field with a bachelor’s in any of a number of subjects – previous education doesn’t necessarily have to be health-focused.

Early Intervention Specialists

Early intervention specialist is sometimes used as an umbrella term for therapists who work with children in the first three years of life. It has a more specific meaning, though: experts who coordinate multidisciplinary care. Professionals may also enter this field from diverse disciplines, including counseling, social work, or education. Duties can include providing instruction or therapy and coordinating services for toddlers up to age three. Early intervention specialists also participate in multi-disciplinary assessment teams – these can be very important for getting a child the services that he or she needs. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, formal assessments are often inappropriate for children under five. Instead, decisions should be made based on a range of assessments, including those grounded in play activity.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner or Family Nurse Practitioner

Pediatric nurse practitioners are highly educated nurses with advanced training in managing healthcare for youngsters. Family care practitioners work with all ages. They often work in rural areas; there they may serve in a primary care role, much like the family pediatrician. They provide checkups, help families manage chronic conditions, and make referrals to specialists. They are also trained to be on the lookout for developmental issues and to get the ball rolling when an infant isn’t meeting milestones.

Nurse practitioners are RNs with graduate level training. They may begin as registered nurses at any educational level (from associate’s on) and continue taking classes and enrolling in degree programs until they reach this level of practice. Sometimes people take an accelerated route after earning a bachelor’s or master’s in another field.