Neonatal Physiotherapy Intervention

Original Editor - Robin Tacchetti based on the course by Krista Eskay
Top Contributors - Robin Tacchetti and Jess Bell

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Infants who require admission to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) are considered vulnerable due to their prematurity and / or significant medical conditions.[1][2] During the last trimester of pregnancy, there is rapid brain development and neuroplastic change - most infants in the NICU are born between 22-40 weeks of gestation,[3] so this development occurs outside the womb. Preterm birth may disrupt genetically programmed patterns of brain development which can lead to neurodevelopmental impairments such as motor dysfunction and behavioural and cognitive problems.[2] Exposure to sensory overload in the NICU (monitors, lights, position changes, multiple episodes of handling) and sensory deprivation of the mother's heartbeat and voice may negatively affect brain maturation.[4][3] The aim of physiotherapy in a NICU setting is to limit these negative neuroplastic changes through calming strategies and movements to simulate the intrauterine environment.[4]

Neonatal Interventions[edit | edit source]

Early intervention in the NICU may alter neuroplasticity and reorganisation of the brain in preterm infants.[2] The theory behind neonatal therapy is three-fold:[3]

  1. protect the neonatal brain
  2. optimise the environment
  3. support the family[3]

Interventions are individualised and highly specialised with the goal of promoting development, preventing adverse sequelae and promoting the infant-family bond. Research shows that interventions with parent engagement have significant and lasting effects on behavioural and cognitive outcomes in infants.[2] A secondary benefit is that parents have decreased anxiety and increased confidence of the neonatal situation.[3]

The following sections discuss various interventions in the NICU.

Kangaroo Care[edit | edit source]

In the NICU environment, a frequently used approach to encourage mother-infant bonding is kangaroo care, also known as skin-to-skin contact. Direct contact is established by removing all the baby's clothes, except for their diaper, and lying them in a prone position on the mother's chest. It has been found that kangaroo care can be neuroprotective as it supports brain plasticity.[5]

Non-Nutritive Sucking/Swallowing[edit | edit source]

A high priority functional activity in the NICU that should be supported by the physiotherapist and other caregivers is sucking and swallowing. Non-nutritive sucking provides tactile stimulation to the intraoral structures and facial muscles through a pacifier or a glove-wearing finger. Research shows that non-nutritive sucking can help reduce the length of hospital stay and improve feeding behaviours.[5]

Positioning[edit | edit source]

Developmentally supportive positioning for infants in NICU reinforces normal skeletal alignment and provides opportunities for normal movement patterns.[6] In addition, positioning can provide skin care and support respiratory function. The combination of these three benefits can allow the infant improved and longer sleep patterns.[5] Research indicates that infants with long stays in NICU, who are not appropriately positioned, are at risk for positional plagiocephaly, torticollis and may demonstrate a decrease in the quality and spontaneity of movement.[5][6]

Range of Motion[edit | edit source]

Passive range of motion exercises may be beneficial for bone development especially when applied to an infant's proximal joints. It has been suggested in the literature that exercises can result in a small, temporary increase in weight gain and bone density in premature infants.[5]

Massage[edit | edit source]

Infant massage (i.e. gentle and slow hand contact) is an early intervention approach to help with a newborn's tactile sense. There is some evidence to suggest that massage can help with growth and weight gain for low birth weight and premature babies, reduce the length of stay in the hospital,[5] reduce neonatal stress[7] and promote sleep.[8] Research by Lu et al.[9] has found that moderate pressure massage therapy can cause greater daily weight gain in preterm infants than light pressure massage therapy.

Family Education[edit | edit source]

Family education is a substantial component of interventional care in the NICU. Understanding how to care for the preterm infant is important for posture and movement development, parent-infant attachment and maintaining the baby's physiological stability. Coaching the family on how to best support the baby's motor development should include topics such as:

  • feeding
  • dressing
  • sleep positioning
  • playing
  • communicating
  • therapeutic holding and carrying

** Training can be in the form of verbal information, video narration and/or written sources.[5]

Environment[edit | edit source]

Developmental care plans in NICU often include techniques to limit the consequences of negative stimuli such as excessive lights, sounds, etc. Environmental regulations geared specifically at these stressors help provide physiological stability.[6]

Lighting[edit | edit source]

Lighting regulations in the NICU are as follows:

  • incubator area where the baby is should not be directly illuminated (except during procedures)
  • use an incubator cover, blanket or cover to reduce direct exposure to light
  • babies requiring phototherapy should use eye masks
  • low settings at night for ambient light to follow night/day cycle[5]

** Evidence demonstrates that introducing robust light-dark cycles has beneficial effects on hospitilisation time and weight gain compared to infants exposed to constant near-darkness or constant light.[10]

Sound[edit | edit source]

There are often disturbing noises at irregular intervals for short durations in NICUs.[11] In an effort to reduce these disruptions, sound regulations in NICU are as follows:

  • ideal sound level at the infant's location should not be higher than 45 decibels (dB)
  • temporary sound increases should not exceed 65dB[12]

** In the preterm population, 2-10% of infants will experience hearing damage as opposed to 0.1% in the general paediatric population.[13]

Temperature[edit | edit source]

Temperature regulations in the NICU are listed below:

  • ideal room temperature in NICU is 21-24°C
  • ideal incubator temperatures for the first 24 hours postnatally: 32.4± 1.5 to 35.0± 0.5 °C
  • ideal incubator temperature between days 5-14: 33.5±0.5 and 32.0± 1.5 °C
  • humidity in an incubator for the first 7 days postnatally is 70%
    • reduced to 40% according to an infant's ability to organise body temperature
    • can be stopped after 21 days depending on the baby's ability to maintain temperature[5]

Pain[edit | edit source]

Infants face noxious stimuli in the NICU. Helping to decrease the pain response by providing sensory input can be performed in a number of ways:

  1. swaddling
  2. providing non-nutritive suck
  3. tactile comfort measures
    1. tapping their bottom
    2. gently rocking them
  4. promoting physiologic flexion[14]

**This video by KK and Women's Hospital demonstrates a quick summary of various NICU interventions:

Resources[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Craig JW, Smith CR. Risk-adjusted/neuroprotective care services in the NICU: the elemental role of the neonatal therapist (OT, PT, SLP). Journal of Perinatology. 2020 Apr;40(4):549-59.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Øberg GK, Girolami GL, Campbell SK, Ustad T, Heuch I, Jacobsen BK, Kaaresen PI, Aulie VS, Jørgensen L. Effects of a Parent-Administered Exercise Program in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit: Dose Does Matter—A Randomized Controlled Trial. Physical Therapy. 2020 May 18;100(5):860-9.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Khurana S, Kane AE, Brown SE, Tarver T, Dusing SC. Effect of neonatal therapy on the motor, cognitive, and behavioral development of infants born preterm: a systematic review. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology. 2020 Jun;62(6):684-92.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Haslbeck FB, Bassler D. Clinical practice protocol of creative music therapy for preterm infants and their parents in the neonatal intensive care unit. JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments). 2020 Jan 7(155):e60412.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 Doğan İE, Balcı NÇ, Gündüz AG. Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Approaches to Premature Infants in Neonatal Intensive Care Units. Journal of Physical Medicine Rehabilitation Studies & Reports. SRC/JPMRS/168. DOI: doi. org/10.47363/JPMRS/2021 (4). 2022;150:2-5.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Sweeney JK, Heriza CB, Blanchard Y, Dusing SC. Neonatal physical therapy. Part II: Practice frameworks and evidence-based practice guidelines. Pediatric Physical Therapy. 2010 Apr 1;22(1):2-16.
  7. Álvarez MJ, Fernández D, Gómez-Salgado J, Rodríguez-González D, Rosón M, Lapeña S. The effects of massage therapy in hospitalized preterm neonates: A systematic review. Int J Nurs Stud. 2017 Apr;69:119-36.
  8. Firmino C, Rodrigues M, Franco S, Ferreira J, Simões AR, Castro C, et al. Nursing interventions that promote sleep in preterm newborns in the neonatal intensive care units: an integrative review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2022; 19(17):10953.
  9. Lu LC, Lan SH, Hsieh YP, Lin LY, Chen JC, Lan SJ. Massage therapy for weight gain in preterm neonates: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2020 May 1;39:101168.
  10. Hazelhoff EM, Dudink J, Meijer JH, Kervezee L. Beginning to see the light: lessons learned from the development of the circadian system for optimizing light conditions in the neonatal intensive care unit. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2021 Mar 18;15:634034.
  11. Almadhoob A, Ohlsson A. Sound reduction management in the neonatal intensive care unit for preterm or very low birth weight infants. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015(1).
  12. Casavant SG, Bernier K, Andrews S, Bourgoin A. Noise in the neonatal intensive care unit: what does the evidence tell us?. Advances in Neonatal Care. 2017 Aug 1;17(4):265-73.
  13. Bertsch M, Reuter C, Czedik-Eysenberg I, Berger A, Olischar M, Bartha-Doering L, Giordano V. The “Sound of Silence” in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—Listening to Speech and Music Inside an Incubator. Frontiers in psychology. 2020 May 26;11:1055.
  14. Eskay, K. Neonatal Physiotherapy Intervention. Plus. 2023