Walking the world

. March 27, 2013.

Kids with Down syndrome don’t have it easy, but Dale Ulrich is doing what he can to make it better.

Youngsters with Down syndrome face a series of obstacles in their path to a happy life. One of the first is learning how to walk. “Typically developing children learn to walk around the age of 12 months, but babies with Down syndrome often learn to walk between 24 and 28 months — a full year later,” said Ulrich, professor of movement science and physical education at the University of Michigan and director of the Center on Physical Activity and Health in Pediatric Disabilities. Ulrich’s goal? To make this crucial moment in a child’s development start sooner for children with Down’s. “Infants learn a lot about their environment by exploring,” he says. “They learn cats have tails and if you pull them, the baby will learn the cat has claws.”

With that in mind, Ulrich and his team at the Center are developing methods to help toddlers with Down syndrome learn to walk much sooner. One recent study is especially promising — treadmill training. Parents place their child with her feet on a specially built, slow-moving, baby-size treadmill to start the process. When the machine is turned on, the child’s feet start to move backward and her muscles spring forward. “Beginning at about the age of 8 to 10 months, babies can begin to exercise for about eight minutes per day on the little treadmill, supported by the protective arms of their parents,” said Ulrich. Generally, within a few months time, the children begin to  support their own weight and walk on their own.

The increased walking abilities leads to exposure to varying kinds of stimulation, according to Ulrich, leading to a host of unexpected but connected improvements in social skills, cognitive development, better language ability and awareness of their environment. And treadmill training encourages children to try out more physical activity, which improves the health of the little ones’ heart and lungs.

The center is working on new studies designed to improve the ability of kids with Down syndrome to walk even sooner — focusing on kicking, at just a few months of age.

You can learn more about the baby treadmills at www.carlinscreations.com. Or, explore the center’s activities at kines.umich.edu/lab/cpah.