If your child seems stiff or rigid, he/she may have what is described as “high muscle tone” (hypertonia). This means that the muscles are chronically contracted. Stiffness can become problematic in an infant when it limits the movements and acquisition of a child’s gross motor skills.
Signs of Stiffness in Infants:
- Your child might hold his/her hands in tight fists or may seem unable to relax certain muscles.
- He/She may have difficulty letting go of an object or difficulty moving from one position to another.
- The legs or trunk of the child might cross or stiffen when you pick the child up as well.
How Can A Physical Therapist Help?
While limb stiffness is a sign of abnormal signals that are being sent from the brain to the body that over-activate certain muscle groups, some of these movement/coordination disorders are mild and can be treated with physical therapy. The physical therapist will help the child break out of her stiff positions, stretch out the tight muscles, strengthen the weak muscles and develop efficient movement patterns.
At times, limb stiffness is a symptom of spastic cerebral palsy; however, parents should not focus on a medical diagnosis within babies. Regardless of the medical diagnosis, the focus of therapy will be to stretch the tight, overactive muscles and guide the child to acquire motor skills and perform functional tasks in a more efficient manner.
How Can A Parent Help?
Parents should set up the environment to be motivating and organize activities so that the child can practice in a variety of ways. Both massage and Yoga can help to improve muscle length and flexibility. While Botulinum Toxin (commonly known by the brand name “Botox”) can help, it is not used in children that are younger than 18 months. This toxin is injected directly into a child’s muscles and temporarily paralyzes the muscle’s activity, giving the child the opportunity to stretch the tight muscle and strengthen the opposing muscle. Muscle relaxants may be prescribed for adults that have cerebral palsy, but they’re rarely used for toddlers as they cause drowsiness.
If you are concerned about the stiffness in your baby or if your child’s rigidity is keeping him/her from interacting with toys, contact your doctor and schedule an evaluation with a physical therapist.