When my daughter injured herself at four years old, taking her to see a physiotherapist wasn't the first thing that came to mind. But the more her condition persisted, and the more I wondered if it was normal, the more I realized her tiny body could use the help of a specialist—especially one who understands children.
As a pediatric physical therapist based in Maryland, Dr. Bonnie Soto often hears that same sentiment ('Is this normal?'). And as a mother of two little ones, ages three years and ten months old, she also understands a parent's concerns. We asked her how, when, and why one might seek out the help of a pediatric physical therapist (PT)—and more. Here's what she said.
What is a pediatric physical therapist, and why would a child need to see one?
A pediatric physical therapist is a physical therapist who treats children—typically from newborn through to the teenage years. If your child needs therapy, a pediatric PT is who you might want to see.
"Anytime you are concerned about how your baby, toddler, or child is moving their body, a pediatric PT can help," Soto said. "If you want to know if something is "normal," why it's happening, or what can be done, that's where we come in."
If your little one was born with a congenital disorder, if they have a hard time moving around after being in a cast, or even if you're concerned about your baby or toddler meeting or missing their milestones, pediatric PTs are experts in all these areas.
"It all comes back to helping kids move better," Soto said.
How are pediatric PTs different from adult physical therapists?
"Well, for one thing," Soto said, "We're way more fun!"
Kidding aside, pediatric PTs specialize in the development of children beginning in infancy – in fact, even in utero. Tiny bodies with their bones and structures are different from adults, and pediatric PTs have a background and understanding of what's typical and what's not and how to address it in children.
There's also a difference in how they approach treatment. You can tell adults what to do and how to do it, and they'll likely do it. But it's not quite the same with kids. Pediatric PTs are experts in making treatment fun, and they know how to get the same kind of results you'd expect in an adult but through play.
What kinds of things do you do in a session?
When it comes to babies and toddlers, a session will start with a lot of education with families about what's going on. Soto herself sees lots of babies and spends a good amount of time helping teach caregivers about certain stretches, for example, how they can hold their baby to gain strength in a muscle.
"I also teach them how they can set up their home environment to help encourage movement so little ones can take the independent steps we're working towards," Soto said. It could look like anything from taking the cushions off the couch so babies can hold onto the surface better, or how to help babies get into different positions.
But often, what it really looks like is playtime! Soto herself gets toys out, makes funny faces, and sings songs. It can look silly, but what she's really doing is distracting little ones so they will let go of a surface and balance, for example.
And then, "the magic happens in the home environment," Soto said. When they're at home, where they're comfortable, children will usually take those risks needed to develop, and Soto likes to empower the family to help their little ones do just that.
Where can parents and caregivers find one?
You can get direct access to a pediatric PT through word of mouth or by asking your pediatrician—but you don't necessarily have to have a referral from your doctor to see one. However, if you have concerns about your child's development and think they could benefit from physical therapy, it's good to talk to your healthcare professional.
"The goal is always to get your little one independent," Soto said. "And then send them on their way."
Kind of like parenting in general. You spend a lot of time setting them up for success, giving them wings and then sit back and watch as they fly.
Find Dr. Bonnie Soto here on Instagram and TikTok.
Heather Dixon is a Managing Editor of a non-profit website and author of fiction. She spent over a decade in the marketing and advertising industry as a copywriter, and has also written about motherhood for a number of established websites, including Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Motherly, Pregnant Chicken, Red Tricycle and others. You can find her at heatherdixon.ca