Parenting is never an easy task, from sleepless nights, school runs and playground adventures it’s no secret that taking care of any child is physically demanding. But what happens when you add special needs to the equation?
At times, this can mean even more physical tasks, it can mean lifting your child beyond toddler age or it can mean bending over backwards (literally!) to ensure your child can join in with their peers. Along with the sleepless nights, school runs and playground adventures, parents of special needs children require superpower strength and attitudes each and every day – from holding a 30kg child while bouncing on the trampoline, supporting a dystonic teenager to stand up at the local shop as they choose a new outfit, or lifting a wheelchair down steep steps when a lift is out of service.
It’s a fact that physical exercise helps everyone but it’s important to realise that there are specific exercises which can support with specific tasks, and most importantly help avoid common and risky injuries – the last thing our superhero parents need!
Aside from all the tasks you do with your differently abled child, ensuring that YOU get regular exercise is not only good for building strength but is excellent for maintaining your mental health and wellbeing as well. All the exercises below have been developed specifically to help with your day to day child related duties while also increasing your energy levels and ensuring a more efficient body.
So, why should you listen to me? Every day I work with children with a variety of physical conditions and as a result I now exercise specifically for their needs. In my career, having good physical strength has meant that I can keep up with a 13-year-old girl with Rett Syndrome learning to walk for as long as possible, enabling a 10-year-old with Angelman Syndrome to stand unaided for the first time and take a group of special needs non-walking children to soft play – if this isn’t #gymspiration then I don’t know what is!
I’m fortunate enough to have the time to work out regularly but I completely appreciate the obstacles to do this as a special needs parent, when the demands of others and your own time are out of your hands. Therefore, this list of exercises is written with your time restrictions in mind.
The below has been tried and tested by the children’s physio team at Bumble Bee Physio, and has been compiled with an adult musculoskeletal physiotherapist, a strength trainer and from my own physiotherapy knowledge.
If any of the children outlined in this guide sound familiar to your little ones, read on to find out how you can support them to reach their full potential, whilst also looking after your own body and preventing injury.
This guide is written with the following differently abled children in mind:
Highly active kids, perhaps with ASD, Angelman Syndrome, William’s Syndrome, Down Syndrome and more
Kids with low muscle tone who accept any support you give to them and lean on you
Kids who need lots of lifting
Kids with high muscle tone, dystonia, stiff muscles and spasticity
Adventurous kids with no fear of danger
Kids with lots of physio needs, e.g. post SDR surgery
Repetitive Postures and Sustained Positions
If your little superhero needs help changing, especially on the floor or a bed, this can take its toll on your back. Even with a height adjustable bed, if your child is strong and doesn’t like getting changed, sudden movements and resistance can place you at risk of developing chronic back pain.
The same risks are posed if your child needs help with feeding, and if you do this multiple times a day they may take longer to feed too. Alongside this, children with hypotonia, may also need to be repositioned throughout their feed for a safe swallow. And if your child has sensory processing issues, their feeding time may take even longer.
While it’s just your day to day activity, you may not realise that sitting three times a day for 45-60 minutes in a sustained posture, while doing repetitive movements with your arms is a big task! It can cause upper back and shoulder pain, as well poor posture.
With this in mind, it’s important to strengthen your core muscles to ensure you’re keeping your body strong and aligned. With a weak core, other muscles will have to take over the core’s job, which are not designed to. This will lead to fatigue, pain and impacted posture which we must avoid.
If you face these issues, take a look at some posture and core exercises.
Special needs parents often end up carrying their children for a number of years, sometimes well into their teenage years, and if you have a heavy child who needs lifting and transferring regularly, chances are you have increased your strength as your child has grown.
You may question why their special school has to hoist them or why the social services OT continues to recommend equipment for tasks that have become second nature to you. Not everyone has your superhuman strength but as your child gets bigger, and you get older, risks are inevitable. Therefore, it’s incredibly important you begin to prepare yourself for the future, know your limits and prevent injuries before they come.
When lifting your kids, it is important to have a strong core. This will hold your back in good alignment whilst you are lifting, and prevent injury. You also need strength in your quads and glutes, especially if you lift your child from the floor. This enables your legs to do the lifting and your back to be protected. Along with this, and if your child has sudden movements, your balance can be thrown off when you are in the middle of a transfer. If this sounds like you, you can improve your balance skills to prevent this happening with our handy exercises.
Choose some strength, core and balance exercises. If you lift your child from the floor, choose squats and deadlifts.
Holding for long periods of time
Regardless of their abilities, we know that kids are kids! They love to be involved with their friends both abled and differently abled. A lot of special needs parents often find themselves holding their little ones in standing or sitting positions for long periods of time, to play, shop, hold hands or join in a game.
For example, kids with Angelman Syndrome, Rett Syndrome or cerebral palsy may want to stand up and be at their peer level to join in the fun. While integral for your child and an important interaction, this may cause your arms to fatigue and your back to become tired and sore.
Again, these tasks require core strength, upper body strength and endurance – particularly if your child likes to play all day long!
With a strong core, your back will remain aligned and your posture will be more efficient, meaning less chance of back pain and by having good strength in your shoulders and arms means you (and your little one) can play for even longer.
We’re sure your kids will thank you for these extra hours of play so have a look at some core, strength and endurance exercises.
Dystonic, unpredictable movements and spasticity
We’ve all been there; you’re helping your child stand up by holding their entire body weight, in an awkward semi kneeling position, they get excited, their tone increases, they lean on you, and you’re trying to keep your balance, praying you don’t fall! Or your teenage child is in a tight packed space, perhaps they’re in a wheelchair on the bus, and you’re busy preventing their dystonic arm from accidentally hitting a child. Over the years you have probably become accustomed to this, increased your strength and fine-tuned your reaction time.
However, while you may be used to doing these tasks multiple times a day, if you have a history of injury, your child is becoming bigger or their condition has become more challenging, you may be more likely to fall, or injure your back and joints.
For this, it’s important to work on your reactions, balance and core. Reaction work enables you to quickly change your position or body to catch or prevent a movement. A strong core will protect your spine from unpredicted stress when you’re least expecting it, and good balance means you’re less likely to fall or hurt yourself in those tricky situations.
Running around after your explorative, fearless and enthusiastic kids!
Most kids reduce their physical activity as they get older, and naturally move around less. However, some conditions such as autism, Down Syndrome and Williams Syndrome may mean your child is much more active, for much longer than other children!
Chasing after your child who is about to run into the road, or jump into a pond because they love water, can quickly take its toll on you. If this is part of your daily routine, take a look at the endurance exercises, and don’t forget to take a break!
Pilates exercises and yoga can help relieve stress and give you some well-deserved rest.
A child with additional needs will require all sorts of physical demands from you, as carers. From putting gaiters on, spinal braces, putting stiff limbs into tight jumpers and pretty dresses, to fastening 20 straps on a wheelchair and getting those dreaded shoes over AFOs. All of these tasks are done on autopilot, you’ve done it so much and for so long you barely notice you’re doing it.
It’s vital to recognise that in the long term, repetitive positions like this can cause aches and pains without the right strength. It’s increasingly important to have a strong core to align your joints when carrying out these activities, as well as good flexibility, so your joints don’t compensate and become injured.
If this sounds like your kind of lifestyle, take a look at flexibility and core exercise categories.
If you ever find yourself with injuries, aches and pains or fatigue from your special needs parenting lifestyle, our sister company, R3 Physiotherapy, is the best in London for adult musculoskeletal problems. Be sure to visit their website: r3physiotherapy.com, or call +447399635486.
Let us know if you’ve given any of these exercises a go and please feel free to share them with your friends!
Until next time,
Hannah and team