Infant Treadmill Study

Sounds like an oxymoron. An infant on a treadmill?! How can this be?? Infants can’t even walk!

After Colten was born we were invited to join an intervention study through the University of Michigan’s Kinesiology department. The study is exploring the benefits of early intervention efforts on myelomeningocele babies. They are looking at bone density, motor skills, and sensory reception. With the lack of or limited movement some of these kids have in lower extremities, fractures are common because the less use and compression of a bone, the weaker it is.

It also is the belief of the research team that the “walking reflex” infants have through about 6 weeks, which then disappears until around 8 months, is something to be captured and utilized instead of shut down. They think the reflex doesn’t actually go away, that the body simply becomes too heavy for the child to move in that way. So encouraging continued use of the walking motions and watching the overall weight gain could help in the long run.

This past Thursday, Colten went through an initial evaluation consisting of some base measurements of his body and a video of his movements. The team extracted quite a bit of data from his movements and even registered movement from his calf (gastrocnemius) and shin (tibialis anterior) muscles, which we did not anticipate. A big part if me wants to ignore this finding because it gives me a lot of hope. That sounds weird but I think mentally I flip-flopped from my original perspective of “hope for and expect the best, and deal with the bad as it comes”. I felt we kept getting kicked down at the beginning (higher defect level, shunt, then shunt revision) and my hopes kept getting shattered. So recently I find myself having more of a worst-case scenario outlook. I feel like I’ve accepted a wheelchair as the end result, and if we don’t wind up there then GREAT, we’ll take it!

Back to the study though. Colten did four one-minute treadmill trials. He was not very happy and didn’t do too well. But he did display a few movements they were hoping to see – mainly pulling a leg forward after the tread pulled it behind him. Then they laid him down on the table and just registered random movements. He was so tired he actually just fell asleep on the table! The team gathered other data: body fat, length of arms and legs, circumference of head, arms, legs, and his foot length (LONG!)

Because he was naked for this part of the study, I only have one picture that’s acceptable to show:

The team came out to our house today to complete some more evaluation including reflex testing and to bring us our infant treadmill and train us in Colten’s daily workout options. He was in a much better mood today and really took some “steps”. What is actually happening is that as the treadmill moves, Colten’s legs are pulled behind him and cause a feeling of imbalance. This makes him want to regain a sense of balance and pull his legs under him or more forward. Because he has quad movement and strong hip flexors, he can do this. More so on the left than the right. His right leg tends to drag behind him quite a bit and doesn’t bother him as much. This could be due to a more severe lack of sensation in that foot/leg compared to the left side. But he does pull the right forward a couple of times.

Reflex testing:

Here’s a short video from today’s treadmill “walking”:
Click here to watch on YouTube.

The treadmill has a slightly tacky feel to it. In typically-developing children, a normal treadmill works fine. In myelo kids, the research team found those treads to be too slippery. The tackiness allowed these kids to feel it more. Then the team found that adding a pattern to the tread encouraged more engagement during treadmill time, at least once the children were closer to and beyond six months of age.

Besides treadmill time, Colten will do “baby steps” and bounces as part of his 10-minute workouts, five times per week. “Baby steps” are done by holding Colten over a flat steady surface like a counter or table, or even the treadmill turned off. Then by moving his body forward, we would hope to encourage the stepping reflex then as well. Bounces require us to hold Colten in front of us and get his feet to set flat on a surface (counter, our lap, the floor), then lower him to a squat position, then raise him up off the surface. Eventually we would hope he pushes off and accepts bearing weight on his legs.

All of these activities are to encourage bone development. They aren’t necessarily designed to make him walk independently or even walk at all. But they should help create patterns in his brain and nervous system that certainly can aid in walking development. And the muscles used in these exercises certainly will aid in walking when the time comes.

In other news, we hopefully have a big lull in medical stuff for a while. If the shunt continues functioning, we may not have to return to Mott for a few months! Colten starts in-home physical therapy after Thanksgiving and we start treadmill activities now. Other than that, we are hoping for a quiet, enjoyable holiday season! So if you don’t hear from us too often, assume things are progressing as expected.

Thanks to everyone that has reached out, visited, cooked, donated, hugged, partied, babysat, called, sent cards, or supported us in any way! The past couple months certainly were made a bit easier because of each of you. Thank you!!!

8 thoughts on “Infant Treadmill Study

  1. My first thought when I watched Colten on the treadmill was “his great uncle ralph is coaxing him along.” It was great seeing all of you on Friday night, thanks to the kindness of your mom & dad; I especially enjoyed seeing Max and Parker. Richard and Katie, you have a lovely family and I admire your spunk.

  2. WOW! He is getting the best of therapy. It is a lot of work for you and him, but I know you will never give up the hope for the best for your little boy. Happy read he does move sometimes on the treadmill. Wishes for a great hollidays for your family.

  3. Hi Katie! It is good to hear your sweet baby boy is home from the hospital again and recovering. It is so obvious that you love him like crazy and want the very best for him. He is a lucky baby. So, I have been thinking a lot about this post and the treadmill study since I read about it here.

    Please understand that this comment is not at all critical of you or your choices. I know that if I was not completely convinced that the therapy path we have chosen for our son was best for him I would be looking into every new and interesting idea I heard about! We all want what is best for our babies.

    I am really curious though what the study is finding about the long term emotional impact of working with a newborn on a treadmill daily. From the research I have read there is good reason why the infant reflexes go away. Specifically the walking reflex is a fight or flight response, which means that the infant is in stress when it is being exhibited. I have also read that if this reflex is fully retained (or only retained on one side) it will affect posture, gait, and locomotion long term. Retaining this reflex is also responsible for bed wetting, attention deficit, poor short term memory, and hip rotation when walking – also proven to make kids hypersensitive and stimulus bound as they develop. What kind of information has this new study been finding in regards to that and/or is it too new to have long term data? I am also curious as to what they are suggesting when they say that it is important to watch overall weight gain in infants. While I understand the importance of keeping our boys with SB at a healthy weight as they grow to help with mobility, I can’t imagine putting an infant on a diet 😉

    Anyway, I am very interested in what you learn and how this study works for your family and for Colten. You are an awesome mom to want to give him every opportunity available from an early age. Keep us posted on what you see and what you find out!

    • That is very interesting information! I would love to read more on where these results came from. Are you able to share those resources with me?

      We are still looking into multiple therapy options. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much research out there on these kids that we have been able to readily locate, and haven’t had time yet to explore everything. So whatever you can share, please do – Thank you in advance!

      • Admittedly, I have always relied on scientific research to make my decisions in the past. But, you are so right, there is very little hard and fast data about what is working best for our little guys with SB. So, I have had to learn to lean a bit more on what my heart tells me is (feels) right, what makes Gabe feel most comfortable/secure, and most of all observational research. In the interactions I have had with many children (and some adults) in the SB community it is easy to recognize that traditional PT is failing our kids. They work so many long hours as little ones to reach milestones on a projected timeline. They show amazing heart and determination, for sure! Yet, their little bodies seem to tense up in areas that would otherwise be unaffected by SB leaving them with awkward patterns and gaits. Then, as soon as they are old enough to make choices for themselves about what is comfortable and doable they seem to abandon the hours of stretching/muscle work. Those observations were enough for me to decide that I wanted something different. Kelly may have mentioned to you before that we are also doing ABM. I sincerely wish there was more data on how it affects the children with SB, but unfortunately I think we are kind of pioneering the field. Hopefully, without sounding like I am bragging … I really feel like Gabe moves his entire body in ways unlike his peers with SB who are doing traditional therapy. I have written about it on his blog and posted a few videos (not sure if you have ever checked it out). Anyway, all that to say I would LOVE to talk to you anytime about our experiences and offer support for you in WHATEVER choice you make for Colten (please feel free to email whenever). I want you to know we consider you part of our SB family. Hugs to you all, Katie

  4. Pingback: All Smiles at PT Today | The Adventures of Colten Robert

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