What Is Pediatric Physical Therapy?

Rehab for Children

Pediatric physical therapy is a specialized area of rehabilitation that focuses on improving function in young children and babies. Physical therapy (PT) is often provided by a physical therapist who specializes in pediatrics.

This article will explore the conditions treated, the therapists who provide treatment, which children may qualify for treatment, and what to expect in a therapy session.

Pediatric physical therapist working with a child.

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Conditions Treated

There are a variety of reasons that a child may require physical therapy services. Some of these may be orthopedic in nature, involving weak muscles or tight tendons. Other problems may be developmental or neurological (of the nerves and brain).

Common diagnoses that may require pediatric physical therapy may include:

Any condition that causes your child to have difficulty with normal movement or development may benefit from pediatric physical therapy.

Who Provides Services?

Any physical therapist licensed by their state's professional licensing board can provide physical therapy services for children. But you may wish to have your child evaluated and treated by a pediatric physical therapy specialist.

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) offers therapists the opportunity to become board certified in several specialties, and one of these specialties is pediatrics.

Pediatric physical therapists have demonstrated clinical excellence in providing therapy services to children, and they have passed a rigorous board examination by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS).

Where To Get Pediatric Physical Therapy

Pediatric physical therapy services may be delivered in a variety of settings. These include:

  • At home
  • In preschool
  • In school
  • In a day care center
  • In an outpatient clinic

Generally speaking, the services provided by physical therapists should be in the natural environment that the child spends their time in.

If your child is school-aged and qualifies for therapy services, those services should be provided in school. If your child is an infant and spends time at home, pediatric physical therapy services should be provided there.

If your child is receiving hospital-based care due to an injury or illness and is experiencing functional difficulties, they should be able to get pediatric physical therapy in the hospital.

Does Your Child Qualify for PT?

If your child's physician diagnoses your child with a functional problem that may require physical therapy, then your child should be able to access a pediatric physical therapist. You can call a local outpatient clinic and inquire about the availability of a pediatric physical therapist who can provide care.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects certain individuals from discrimination based on a known disability. If your child is diagnosed with a problem or condition that limits their access to services or programs, they should be entitled to pediatric physical therapy.

This service should take place at home, in preschool, or at school with the goal of allowing your child full participation in all programs that are offered to all children.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides similar provisions for children from birth to age 21 to receive pediatric physical therapy services. These services are intended to allow your child full participation in school and community programs offered to all children.

What Will Happen During the PT Session?

A child's work is play, and a pediatric physical therapy session often looks like play. The therapy area where your child and therapist will work may be filled with colorful and specialized tools and exercise equipment. These tools are designed to help your child develop gross motor movement to improve functional mobility.

Items often used include:

  • Large and small therapy balls
  • Small trampolines for hopping
  • Hoops to hop into or around
  • Balance beams
  • Foam rollers for positioning
  • Toys to encourage reaching or head turning

Any item that can safely help your child move better and function normally may be used in pediatric physical therapy.

If your child has a significant movement disorder that limits walking or sitting, your pediatric physical therapist may recommend special seating or a special pediatric wheelchair for mobility. Your therapist may work as part of a team to ensure that your child's mobility needs are met.

If your child has a minor injury like an ankle sprain or fracture, their therapy sessions may look a bit like rehab for an adult. Your therapist may perform range of motion or strengthening exercises to help your child improve mobility and strength. The overall goal of therapy is to help your child improve their functional mobility.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is pediatric physical therapy important?

If a child's development is hampered by an injury or illness, they may not enjoy the same freedom of movement as other kids. Their rehab needs are different from adults', and they may need a pediatric specialist for rehab.

A pediatric physical therapy specialist can help them grow along with their peers and enjoy the most mobility and function and fewer barriers to normal mobility.

How do you become a pediatric physical therapist?

Any physical therapist can provide services to children, but some work to become a pediatric specialist. To earn this designation, they must pass a test given by the ABPTS.

Pediatric board certification is designated by the letters PCS (pediatric clinical specialist) after your physical therapist's name. Board certification lasts for 10 years, at which point the pediatric physical therapist must take the ABPTS exam again.

How long does it take to specialize in pediatric physical therapy?

To qualify to sit for the pediatric physical therapy board specialty examination, a therapist must have at least 2,000 hours of direct patient care in pediatric physical therapy.

How do you pay for pediatric intensive physical therapy?

If your child has an individualized education plan (IEP), services should be covered through your local county's health program. No out-of-pocket cost will be incurred to you.

If your child is injured or is ill and requires physical therapy, your health insurance should cover the cost of therapy. There may be a copayment or deductible for you to pay in this case.

Summary

Children may benefit from physical therapy for any condition that limits their movement and function. This may be a long-term condition or one related to an illness or injury.

Therapy may be provided by any physical therapist, but some therapists specialize in treating children. A child may receive therapy in many settings, including at home, school, or hospital.

A Word From Verywell

A pediatric physical therapist can work with your child (and your family) to help them develop their skills, function, and movement. This can help your child achieve the best functional mobility they can and have the fewest barriers.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jeffries LM, McCoy SW, Effgen SK, Chiarello LA, Villasante Tezanos AG. Description of the services, activities, and interventions within school-based physical therapist practices across the United StatesPhys Ther. 2019;99(1):98-108. doi:10.1093/ptj/pzy123

  2. Office for Civil Rights. Parent and educator resource guide to Section 504 in public elementary and secondary schools. Updated 2016. 

  3. Department of Education. About IDEA. Updated 2020.

  4. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sprained ankle. Updated February 2016.