April 21, 2021

Everything You Need to Know About Gross Motor Delay and Physical Therapy

How does physical therapy help children with gross motor delay?

Children with gross motor delays struggle to master physical movements. Along with physical movements, they may have issues with speaking, thought coordination, playing, and self-care tasks such as bathing, eating, getting dressed, and brushing their hair compared to similar aged peers.

If your child was diagnosed with a gross motor delay or you suspect he or she may have one, you likely have a lot of questions. You may not understand the various aspects of your child’s delay.

We explain gross motor delays and also discuss how physical therapy (PT) can help your child learn the necessary skills to gain more independence.

Key Takeaways:

  • Gross motor skills involve complex movements of the arms, legs, and torso.
  • Gross motor delays may be an issue if your child hasn’t reached certain physical milestones compared to children his/her age.
  • A pediatrician and physical therapist can perform an evaluation that evaluates your child in comparison to his/her peers.
  • Physical therapy sessions can involve stretching exercises, guided play, strengthening activities, ball play skills, gait training, coordination skills, and functional skills.
  • You will also be taught exercises you can do at home.

Defining gross motor delays

First, let’s define gross motor skills. These skills refer to actions that involve complex movement of the arms, legs, and torso. Gross motor skills require motor planning, which is the ability to plan out actions in order to perform a task.

For young children, gross motor skills include crawling, walking, running and jumping, and as they get older, things like throwing a ball or riding a bike.

Children should also develop “fine motor skills.” These skills require more precise movements, such as holding a pencil, writing on paper, picking up small objects, or using a fork or scissors.

Of course, all children develop gross and fine motor skills at a different pace. Some start to crawl very early while others may take longer to achieve this skill. Meanwhile, some children have trouble reaching certain milestones compared to their peers. These children may have a gross motor delay.

Signs of gross motor delays

Any delay in reaching certain milestones such as walking, talking, social, and motor skills (including gross or fine motor skills) are called developmental delays. There is no precise cause of developmental delays. They may be hereditary, idiopathic or from complications from pregnancy or birth. Premature babies are at a higher risk of experiencing developmental delays, for example.

It is advised that children hit certain milestones by a particular age. For instance, many children can stand on one foot for up to ten seconds by around age five. Children are also usually able to hold a toothbrush and use a fork by this age.

Failing to achieve these skills is not a definite sign of a motor delay, but it could be a clue if it is accompanied by other signs of fine or gross motor delays, including:

  • Floppy or loose trunk & limbs
  • Stiff arms and legs
  • Limited movement in the arms and legs
  • Unable to sit up without support by nine months old
  • Involuntary reflexes dominate voluntary movements
  • Unable to bear weight and stand up by around age one

Other signs of motor delays for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers include if they aren’t able to:

  • 4 months: Able to hold up his/her head
  • 6 months: Able to sit up alone
  • 12 months: Starts walking alone
  • Age 2: Walking smoothly, starting to run, and using stairs without support, jump with 2 feet
  • Age 3: Climbing on a jungle gym, pedaling a tricycle, walking on a line
  • Age 4: Able to kick objects as directed, throw (overhand/underhand), and hop

If your child does not reach these milestones, it may be time to get a professional evaluation from a pediatrician. He or she will be able to assess your child’s movements and compare them to other children in the same age range. The pediatrician then can refer your child to a Physical Therapist who can perform more specific evaluations of gross motor skills. These are standardized tests that have been used on hundreds of children for decades. The test will determine your child’s skill level compared to where he or she should be for his/her age.

There may be an explanation beyond a motor delay, but you need to know as soon as possible. Early intervention, including physical therapy, is important for your child to learn skills and become more independent.

Getting help from a physical therapist

If your child has been diagnosed with a motor delay, strongly consider physical therapy. As we mentioned, starting PT as early as possible is essential to help your child develop important motor skills. A physical therapy evaluation will go as follows:

  • Step 1: The physical therapist will start by doing a comprehensive evaluation to determine your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Step 2: The therapist will also evaluate your home environment and help you understand how to build motor skills one at a time.
  • Step 3: Therapists will help guide or cue movements so your child can learn a new way to move. There are many ways your child can be taught to pull him or herself up to a stand or learn to walk.
  • Step 4: You will also be taught how to help your child master certain skills at home.

Physical therapy sessions for gross motor delays may include:

  • Stretching exercises
  • Fun exercises and play
  • Gait training to help improve balance and walking
  • Shoe inserts that help align the feet and ankles (to enable walking and playing)
  • Assignment of at-home exercises

Physical therapy at Lumiere Children’s Therapy

Physical Therapy at Lumiere Children’s Therapy applies a team-based approach to therapy. We focus on helping children climb, walk, run, jump, or otherwise improve gross or fine motor skills. Children receive PT in the form of play so that sessions are fun, helping to boost your child’s confidence. Every child is evaluated and given a personalized treatment plan to help him or her gain the necessary skills.

We also help kids with issues such as:

  • Generalized muscle strengthening
  • Gait training
  • Body awareness
  • Coordination skills
  • Functional skills, such as climbing stairs
  • Neuromotor reeducation following traumatic injury (spinal cord or brain injury)
  • Sports injuries (fractures, strains/sprains)

We help children diagnosed with a range of conditions, including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, down syndrome, toe walking, clubfoot, chromosomal abnormalities, and coordination disorders.

Lumiere Children’s Therapy provides other comprehensive therapies for children with a wide range of physical, emotional, and developmental conditions.

Our services include:

  • ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) Therapy
  • Speech therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Developmental therapy
  • Augmentative alternative communication
  • Early intervention
  • Teletherapy
  • Social work

Lumiere Children’s Therapy is a full-service, multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice located in Chicago that serves the developmental needs of children from birth to 18 years of age. Learn more about how our team of clinicians works to improve the lives of children and their families.

Contact us to learn more.

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