By addressing motor, play, social, feeding, and self-care skills early in life, occupational therapists can support your young child in creating a solid foundation for their future development. This article will touch on some of the factors that make early intervention (EI) occupational therapy (OT) effective in supporting lifelong skills.

Before we jump into the factors, let us talk about the basics of EI occupational therapy. 

What is Early Intervention?

Early Intervention is a program created to lessen the effects of a disability or delay by addressing the needs of young children from birth to 3 years old. This is achieved by supporting the child’s family. Families are the experts when it comes to their child, and in EI, the family is the primary agent of change for their child. Participating in EI can result in a wide range of concrete benefits.

You can find a full article here answering the question, What are the Benefits of Early Intervention for Kids and Families?

What is pediatric occupational therapy?

Occupational therapists (OT) collaborate with professionals and parents/caregivers to identify and meet the needs of children experiencing delays or challenges in development. Occupational therapists determine and modify barriers that interfere with functional performance. An OT will provide parent/caregiver resources and skills to use in the home/community, adapt activities, materials, and environmental conditions to allow children to participate across all settings.

Want to learn more about occupational therapy? Read the basics of What is Occupational Therapy.

Early intervention (EI) occupational therapy (OT) is vital for many different factors, the timing of seeking treatment is essential.

Early intervention occupational therapy

Plasticity

Infants’ and toddlers’ brains and bodies are especially receptive to new skills in these early years of life. Easy adoption of new skills is also referred to as the concept of “plasticity,” which is the capacity of the brain to create structural and long-term changes in response to the demands of the environment. (Essentially, the child’s ability to learn new skills quickly). Early intervention (EI) occupational therapy (OT) aims to capitalize on this period of high plasticity to create progress that supports future development. Although occupational therapy is most certainly still effective in later years, seeking OT early in the infant or toddler’s development makes an extra “boost” in effectiveness because it occurs in this window.

Progression of Skills

When your infant or toddler receives EI OT treatment, your pediatric occupational therapist will focus on skills that support the ability to complete more complex tasks required of childhood and even adulthood. Let’s break this down into some examples per area:

  • Early fine motor skills
    • drawing pictures→ , handwriting → , typing (and so much more)
  • Early feeding skills
    • enjoying lunch at school → connecting over food → healthy eating habits → enjoying cooking
  • Early play/social skills
    • making friends → sense of community → future personal and professional relationships
  • Early self-care skills
    • independently dressing and routines → learning how to cook → , learning how to shop, and clean, → independent living skills in adulthood
early occupational therapy

Let’s zoom in on one particular motor skill now — the pincer grasp (picking things up with the tips of the index and thumb fingers). In typical development, the pincer grasp is seen anywhere from 8-10 months old. The pincer grasp is a foundational development that sets children up to do things like feeding themselves, pulling zippers, string beads, fasten buttons, writing with a pencil, typing, and more. If a baby shows signs of delay in mastering their pincer grasp, we can add this to the focus of treatment. With early identification and work with an occupational therapist, your baby may master the other milestones in a relatively typical timeline. However, if their pincer grasp delay goes unaddressed, we may find it takes more time to catch up to the other milestones listed above when they have difficulty with something like handwriting. (But, of course, it can be done!)

This all shows that the skills developed in infancy and toddlerhood are directly supportive of the skills we all use (often unconsciously) in our daily lives as adults.

Family-Centered

Another focus of EI OT is supporting parents in promoting these skills in the home environment. Whether the therapy occurs in your home or in a clinic, your occupational therapist will demonstrate techniques and explain how you can implement these strategies at home. Infants and toddlers learn skills best within their daily routines. Your occupational therapist will work with you to develop a plan to incorporate the practice into your family routine.

EI OT also focuses on what is most important to you. Different families have different priorities, and OT is focused on supporting your child to function best within your family and your environment. To create the most lasting progress for the future, your therapist will collaborate with you to prioritize the skills that will be most important for them as they grow up in your family, in your culture and in your environment.

Early occupational therapy promotes lifelong skills

Research

There have been decades of research supporting the effectiveness of an EI. In Case- Smith’s (2013) review of the evidence for EI OT, she cites the following findings: 

  • “The National Early Intervention Longitudinal Study (NEILS), which surveyed teachers and parents, reported findings from 2009 to 2010 that 71%-76% of children receiving EI services demonstrated improvement across performance areas, including social relationships, reasoning, problem-solving, feeding, dressing, and other self-care.”
  • Between 54% and 62% of children receiving EI services met developmental age expectations at age 3 (Early Childhood Outcomes Center, 2011).” 
  • Findings from NEILS showed that 98% of families participating in EI felt competent in caring for their children’s basic needs, and 90% reported that EI services had improved their ability to help their children develop and learn (Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, 2011). 

To summarize, these results show that EI OT can help your infant or toddler make long-term progress. The results also prove that incorporating what a parent learns from their occupational therapist into the family’s daily activities will improve the developmental delay and give parents confidence in helping their infant or toddler achieve milestones.

If you are concerned with your infant or toddler’s development in their fine motor skills, social, self-care, feeding, or play skills, we encourage you to book a FREE consultation with one of our OTs! We would love to support you in addressing these skills early, so your child can fulfill their long-term potential as they grow!

Resources:

Case-Smith, J. (2013). From the Desk of the Guest Editor – Systematic reviews of the effectiveness of interventions used in occupational therapy early childhood services. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67, 379-382.

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