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Neonatal Therapists – Essential Members of the NICU Care Team

Therapist delivering care

Kati Knudsen, PT, MPT, CNT, PCS, DCS, CLE, & AngelEye Health Clinical Advisory Member

What is a neonatal therapist? 

This is a common question from people outside of and within the medical community. As a neonatal therapist, I have the privilege of coming alongside parents and supporting their infants throughout their NICU journey. Once considered an adjunct to the care of neonates, neonatal therapists are now recognized as an essential part of the NICU team based on their expertise in feeding and development. Occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech-language pathologists can all be qualified to work as part of the NICU healthcare team and bring hands-on skills for care of the tiniest and most medically fragile infants, as well as a focus on long-term outcomes for NICU graduates.

Family-integrated Care is Key to Neonatal Therapy

Family-integrated care is integral to the work of neonatal therapists as we focus on parents’ support of development and feeding. Many therapists start seeing neonates soon after birth and have a crucial role in educating and assisting parents in caring for their tiny, fragile babies in the NICU.  As a neonatal physical therapist (PT), I often meet parents for the first time within a day or two of birth as I assist them with providing containment and skin-to-skin holding. As I do so, I educate them regarding the benefits of their presence in the NICU and the neuropromotion and neuroprotection they can provide for their growing baby through positive touch. As babies mature, therapeutic interventions are adapted to promote development, growth, and feeding. Many neonatal therapists hold certifications in areas such as breastfeeding, massage, and developmental care. Their education and experience help to support babies in the NICU and often after discharge via follow-up clinic programs as well. 

Daily in the NICU, I work very closely with nurses and other members of the healthcare team. I am often the second set of hands for the care of a micropremie or an infant on a ventilator. I assist moms with positioning for breastfeeding to support latching and ensure mom and baby are well aligned to preserve their energy for breastfeeding. I assess bottle feeding, making sure the baby has an optimal feeding plan for the development of oral-motor organization and coordination. I assist with positioning at care times to promote neurodevelopment and musculoskeletal alignment. I work with parents of babies withdrawing from opiates to promote calming and regulation. And I do all this considering how it will help the baby be discharged from the NICU and thrive throughout infancy, childhood, and their lifetime.

Technology Supports Therapists and Enhances the Family Experience 

The technology provided by AngelEye Health allows neonatal therapists and other healthcare providers to improve our work with babies through communication with families. Parents are often not able to be in the NICU as much as they would like, and AngelEye allows therapists to send pictures and videos of interventions. These can be helpful in keeping parents apprised of daily activities in the NICU and also provide a valuable education tool so that caregivers may learn how to care for and support their babies. AngelEye also allows neonatal therapists to provide online education for families which may be accessed at their convenience. 

I cherish my role in the NICU and join with AngelEye in wishing all neonatal therapists a wonderful International Neonatal Therapy Week and gratitude for all you do to support babies in the NICU! To learn more about neonatal therapy, please visit www.neonataltherapycertification.com or www.neonataltherapists.com.