why would a child need OT

Why Would a Child Need OT? 9 Clues to Look Out For

Once you become a parent, you immediately begin the endless worry cycle of always providing everything your child could possibly need.  For most people, resources for the typical day to day needs of a child are readily available. 

We also find friends and family who have older children and who have been through stages ahead of our own, and we can get advice and guidance from those who are more experienced. But what if what our child is going through is not a typical developmental phase? What if the challenges we are noticing are beyond what most parents we know have encountered?  

There are a few clues your child may need support from an expert.  One of the professions available for supporting the development of children is occupational therapy.  The “occupations” of children include so many activities, such as playing, eating, bathing, dressing, going to school, building friendships, learning sports and other games, cleaning up, doing chores, etc. 

If a child has a pattern of significant difficulty engaging in occupations or demonstrates developmental challenges that impact his or her ability to engage in daily activities, a pediatric occupational therapist could help! 

Although this list is not exhaustive, here are 9 clues that indicate a child can benefit from occupational therapy services.

Clue #1:  Delayed Early Milestones

If your child seems to struggle significantly to acquire developmental milestones, such as feeding efficiently, sitting up, crawling, walking, holding objects, etc., he or she could benefit from an OT evaluation.  There are a variety of reasons why a child may show delays. 

An assessment of foundational skills such as muscle tone, postural strength, sensory processing skills and other neuro motor abilities would indicate what interventions could help the child develop the skills to meet milestones with more success. 

why would a baby need OT

Clue #2:  Sensory Signals

One important way we all learn about the world and our own bodies is through sensation. Children who struggle with processing sensory information may have difficulty with a variety of daily living skills.  

Babies may show distress when placed on their backs for diaper changes or when placed in the bathtub.  These positions may be aversive to them because their sensory systems are not properly processing sensory input. 

During feeding, he or she could avoid specific flavors or textures, for example.  In addition, textures of clothing or bedding could be noxious to young children and create disruptions in dressing and sleeping. 

Young children who are too fearful to enjoy the bounce house at a birthday party or cover their ears when music is played could have sensory processing challenges.  The list of potential sensory signals is endless. Parents who notice not just one or two sensory clues but more of a pattern of sensory sensitivity or decreased awareness of sensation could seek help from an occupational therapist.

Clue #3. Frustration with Function

It is typical for growing children to want to do for themselves as they approach the appropriate age for mastery.  When a child’s motor or social skills are not adequate for achieving mastery at specific ages, parents may notice a child becoming frustrated. 

For example, children who struggle to get dressed on their own, despite being old enough to do so, may become aware that their skills are not at the level that allows them to do these things. This can cause frustration. If this frustration is a pattern across several daily living skills, consulting an occupational therapist could be of great benefit. 

Clue #4:  Emotional Distress

Children who struggle more than peers with emotional regulation may also benefit from occupational therapy.  This may be apparent if your child has frequent meltdowns that seem more intense and longer than those of peers. Or it could be your child has difficulty calming after being upset or being able to calm down for sleep on a regular basis. Emotional distress can translate to difficulty with many daily routines as well as building peer relationships. Extra support from a professional could make all the difference. 

Clue #5:  Struggling with Transition into School

There is absolutely an adjustment phase for young toddlers when starting school. This may be their first encounter with group instruction, structured activities, and being with a consistent group of peers.  However, if after a few months, your child is still struggling to adjust to the school environment, they may need outside support.

Some indicators could be difficulty with separation at drop off after several months, difficulty engaging in activities within the classroom, or appearing overly stressed in the school setting. Talking with the teachers who are experienced with young children will be a critical step to knowing when and if your child could benefit from a “boost” from a service like occupational therapy. 

Clue #6 Feeding Limitations

From an early age, feeding issues and difficulties can indicate a need for professional intervention. Occupational therapists are trained throughout the lifespan to address feeding challenges that may be related to motor delays or sensory processing difficulties.  If your young eater is so picky with foods that you are concerned about their health, it is definitely time to find a qualified professional to support your family.  

Clue #7 Handwriting Challenges

As the child reaches school age, handwriting demands will increase with each grade level. Children who struggle to learn the sequences of strokes for making letters, to keep up with peers when doing their desk work, to space their letters or keep writing on the lines in older grades, may have underlying areas of challenge. These foundational skills can be supported through the guidance of an occupational therapist. 

OT handwriting

Clue #8 Disorganization

During the elementary school years and on through the upper grades, children are expected to manage their belongings with increasing independence. If you notice your child is struggling as a student to keep materials together, bring home appropriate assignments, and manage time effectively, he or she could be struggling with organizational skills and an occupational therapist can help!

Often these are children who have difficulty keeping their rooms cleaned up, finding things, and completing tasks in general. All kids need support to learn these skills, but if you have tried to teach and support your child in learning organization and it seems to be significantly difficult, there may be a need for seeking out OT services. 

Clue #9 Avoidance of Physical Activities

Skills such as sensory processing, balance, coordination, and strength are the building blocks for physical confidence. Children who struggle with any of these may avoid specific physical activities that are typically enjoyed by same-aged peers.

For example, a 12 year old who is nervous to learn to ride her bike or a 6 year old who sits on the bench at recess versus engaging in swinging and climbing with peers on the playground. This as well as any of the above clues may indicate that a child would benefit from occupational therapy.

pediatric occupational therapy

Next Steps: Finding an Occupational Therapist

Remember that all children develop at different rates! However, if your child appears unhappy and struggling in situations where most peers are thriving, it may be worth considering occupational therapy. The age of your child and the specific area of challenge will determine how you can begin to investigate occupational therapy services in your area.

If you have an infant or younger child and are seeing some of the clues mentioned in this article, your first step is to ask your pediatrician for an appropriate referral.  Depending on your geographical location, they may refer you to a local pediatric OT clinic or an early intervention program.  

If you have a child who is reaching school age, you can seek out an assessment with the school district if your concerns would impact school participation. There are also sensory clinics worldwide that can also support children across the age ranges. A simple Google search for pediatric occupational therapists in your area is also a great place to start. 

Occupational therapy is all about supporting function and success throughout the lifespan.  If you notice a pattern of struggle for your child that is impacting happiness and development, an OT can help!  

We hope this article helped you to understand the answer to the commonly searched question of “why would a child need OT”! If you are a pediatric OT yourself and would anything else to this list to share with parents and caregivers, let us know in the comments. 

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