If you ask baby Clementine’s parents, they’ll tell you they call it her “spa day” — and the best day of their week.
Clementine, and other premature babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns, sometimes participate in a form of developmental care known as hydrotherapy.
Hydrotherapy is a handling technique used in physical therapy treatments to promote brain development and motor patterns in babies born earlier than 32 weeks. It involves gently immersing babies in warm water (approximately 101° F) to eliminate the effects of gravity by using the buoyancy of water to support their tiny bodies.
The temperature and water pressure provide positive touch experiences, which are important for brain and nervous system development of infants in the NICU.
NICU physical therapists use hydrotherapy and the buoyancy of water to help strengthen the arms, legs and core muscles of premature babies, and develop the fetal position, or “tuck” position — a pattern demonstrated by full-term babies.
“If they can tuck and flex their body against gravity, they’ll be able to start developing early motor skills that are needed to roll around and reach other things in their environment,” says Robyn Wyzinski, a NICU physical therapist.
Another goal of hydrotherapy is to help babies socially interact with their parents and caretakers.
“There is a certain amount of calming that happens within the babies, and, in turn, they give more attention to the people surrounding them,” says Wyzinski.
The soothing warm water helps calm hyper-exaggerated stress reflexes that premature babies demonstrate in the early stages of development. Babies start visually focusing on their parents and establishing a bond.
To connect further with their baby, parents are encouraged to participate by delicately bathing their baby before the session ends.
“Parents feel empowered to provide touch in order to support their baby’s development while they are here, and they love to see their baby’s response to their voice,” says Wyzinski.
Sharp Mary Birch is the first hospital in Southern California and one of a few facilities in the country to offer hydrotherapy during physical therapy treatments in the NICU.
For the news media: To talk with Robyn Wyzinski about hydrotherapy for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.