Born prematurely, kids hit the gym to catch up

Three days a week, two-yearold Varun goes to a gym in Chennai. The physiotherapist makes him sit on an exercise ball, pushes him to roll over his tummy without support, and makes him walk on a tiny treadmill. Varun, born ten weeks ahead of his term, would soon start walking without support.

My First Steps, Varun's gym, is one of the paediatric physiotherapy centres that have cropped up in Chennai. Though preterm delivery is one of the biggest causes of infant deaths, babies weighing as low as 500 grams manage to survive - and lead a normal life - with such special intervention. Specialists say babies born before the 34th week require early intervention to help them achieve growth milestones.

A normal baby turns on his tummy before the fourth month, pulls himself to sitting position and crawls by the sixth month, and walks with support before the first birthday.

Paediatric physiotherapist Rashmi Goyal says a lot of children these days miss these milestones, but lead a normal life after therapy. "The brain has a great degree of plasticity. These kids can be moulded with appropriate inputs ," says Goyal, who is currently treating 50 children.

Intervention programmes include play-based exercise programmes with the active participation of mothers. Goyal says it is better to intervene early. "For instance, nine-year-old Sharanya has managed to achieve most of her milestones, but she still has difficulty climbing stairs," she says. Senior paediatrician Dr S Balasubramanian of Kanchi Kamakoti Childs Trust Hospital endorses it. "Physiotherapy is used extensively in developed countries, but it's picking up here only now," he says.

It is important to speed up milestone achievements, notes paediatric physiotherapist Abhita Arvindraj, as children have to be normal before they join pre-school. "Earlier, children went to school by four or five years. Now they join by two," she says.

(Names of the children and their parents have been changed)

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