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Play-Based Study Seeks To Help Developmentally Delayed Babies Reach Important Milestones

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
Kelsey Bushnell is a participant in a research study that helps developmentally delayed babies reach important milestones through play therapy.

Kelsey Bushnell just turned a year old. Like most babies, she’s very interested in grabbing new things and putting them in her mouth. On the day I visited her home, she was particularly fascinated with my microphone cord.

I move it away—out of sight, out of mind. But she leans over, lands on her left arm and reaches across her body with her right arm to grab the cord.

This is something most babies can do around ten months, but for Kelsey it’s a new skill. She’s still learning to sit on her own and is about six months behind in certain motor skills due to hypotonia, or low muscle tone.

Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Infant development researcher Regina Harbourne of Duquesne University is the lead investigator in a study looking at a type of physical therapy that stimulates a baby's social and cognitive growth.

“It’s really hard for her, especially to sit and reach to that side,” said Regina Harbourne, director of the Infant Development Lab at Duquesne University. “But she remembered it was there, so that’s one thing, that’s good object permanence…and then she figured out how to get there.”

Play is integral to how babies grow and learn, so if they are delayed in the ability to sit or reach, other areas can be impacted. Because everything is so entwined, Harbourne is researching ways physical therapists can incorporate play and problem solving to help kids achieve important cognitive and social milestones.

"She seems to thrive on the problem solving," said Kelsey's mom Jenna Bushnell. "Especially when she gets a challenge to where she has to figure out a new way to solve it. That seems to really intrigue her."

Traditional physical therapies for infants use play as a motivator, but here, it's integrated into the intervention. Exercises in Harbourne's study might include getting a baby to pull on a table cloth to reach a toy, or hitting a ball with a hammer to push it through a hole.

The way Kelsey figured out how to grab the microphone cord by herself shows progress.

“So that’s kind of building in her brain this connection between, ‘Oh, I don’t have to have somebody give it to me. I can move my body around and get to the thing I’m interested in,’” said Harbourne. “She’s getting a lot more skillful in her sitting skills.”

Harbourne hopes to publish her findings in a couple years. In the meantime she’s looking for more babies to participate in the study.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.