NICU babies use hydrotherapy to improve motor skills

Published: Jun. 26, 2020 at 7:29 PM CDT
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Every year, an estimated 15 million babies are born premature, and the number is rising. These babies can face a variety of health complications, but a therapy that's new to Lincoln is helping them grow stronger and go home sooner.

Benny Huenink has been in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at CHI Health St. Elizabeth for the last eight weeks.

"Benny joined us on May 1 at 28 and 5 weeks," said his mom, Jessi Huenink. "He was quite a bit early, but he was average size, so 2.5 pounds when he was born."

He may be little, but with some help, Benny is reaching big milestones. Twice a week for the last month, he's been doing hydrotherapy.

"It helps to develop their neuro-motor system, because you're eliminating gravity, so it allows them to move their body more freely," said Makenna Tucker, an occupational therapist with CHI Health St. Elizabeth.

It may look and sound relaxing, but it's also hard work for Benny.

"We see what they're doing with the legs, so I look at is he flexing his hips and knees, moving through different movement patterns, and if he's able to be calm with his arms unswaddled," Tucker said.

Each session only takes about ten minutes, but for Benny's parents, those ten minutes mean the world.

"You're just stripped of so much when you have an early baby that being able to participate in whatever is going on is such a blessing," Huenink said.

Huenink says she can tell a difference in Benny's strength too.

"At first, he was really rigid, and now it's cool to see that he bounces off the bottom and lets his arms kind of float and he's so relaxed," Huenink said.

After his hard work at therapy, Benny gets rewarded with the best part of his day, snack time and a nap.

CHI Health St. Elizabeth started offering hydrotherapy to babies born 36 weeks or sooner, but it can be done with full-term babies as well. Tucker says it can be especially beneficial for children with neurological or orthopedic conditions, or those who were exposed to drugs, because it can help with pain management and improve feeding.