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Neonatal Hydrotherapy on the NICU

Updated: May 23

Byline: Andrea Salzman, MS, PT

[As it was first published in Australia...thus the posh British spellings!] 

As a brand-new physiotherapist barely twenty-four years old, I found myself working as the lead on the Burn Unit at a major trauma centre in North America. It was a wee bit intimidating. The specialised protocols, extensive need for precautions, and generalised fear of the “big screw-up” kept me on my toes.

Click to watch videos of NICU hydrotherapy:

But sister, let me just say, the Burn Unit’s got nothing on the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. That place will put the fear of the Almighty (meaning, of course, the nurses) into any physio.

NICU nurses are very protective of their charges – and rightfully so. Anything that disrupts the Zen in that place means additional stressors on amped-up bambini. So imagine the reaction that a physio might get if she entered the NICU and said, “Today, we try pool therapy!”

The History of Neonatal Hydrotherapy

I first became aware that physiotherapists dared to bring the benefits of “aquatic therapy” into the NICU in the 1990’s. At that time I was the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Aquatic Physical Therapy and I came across a pilot study published in 1983 by Jane Sweeney, PT, PhD, PCS. (Note: Sweeney’s name is now synonymous with many of the advances in water-based treatments on the NICU.)

When I first heard of neonatal hydrotherapy, I pictured Sweeney rolling a mini Hubbard tank of sorts onto the unit, wrestling lines and leads and horrified parents; frankly, in my head, it looked insane. Of course my visualisation was nothing near reality, but the fascination was planted. From that original pilot study, I have kept tabs and read with delight every development in this esoteric field.The Need For Neonatal Hydrotherapy

To a newborn, neonatal units must appear exceedingly loud, astonishingly bright, unbelievably chaotic and intermittently painful. Nurses do everything they can to maximise the peace and comfort of their charges, but there is only so much that can be done. So, any technique which can reduce pain, decrease physical stressors, induce sleep and increase hunger and the tendency to suck…. all without robbing the infant of energy is like a gift from the NICU gods.

Aquatic therapy, performed by a physiotherapist on the unit in a specialised warm basin, can be this gift. It’s not the same thing as swaddled bathing (although swaddled bathing borrows heavily from the protocols established by the physio Sweeney). In swaddled bathing, the intent is to handle, clean and calm the infant without producing physical stressor or temperature variation. The emphasis is on quickness and little is done to encourage specific movements. In aquatic physiotherapy (or neonatal hydrotherapy as it was originally called), the intent is different.

With aquatic physiotherapy, the goal is to improve the neonate’s capacity for sleep and quantity and duration of sucking, and to decrease pain, especially post-invasive procedure.

In 2015, the Cochrane Collection published their findings of the benefits of non-pharmacological management of infant and young child procedural pain. Their findings showed that these little ones gained the most benefit from non-nutritive sucking, swaddling/facilitated tucking, and rocking/holding. Neonatal hydrotherapy allows physiotherapists trained to work in the NICU to marry the use of rocking and holding patterns with immersion in soothing warm water environment. The techniques also make use of swaddling both during and after the session to help maintain temperature and decrease the stress which premature infants feel when they are not flexed and held closely bound.

Candidates For Neonatal Hydrotherapy

Infants who are being considered for aquatic sessions should be medically stable and have either lost their umbilical cord or have the cord covered with a bio-occlusive dressing, according to Sweeney. Children who remain on ventilator support, those whose temperatures remain unstable and those who are experiencing apnea or episodes of bradycardia are not candidates for this technique. (See Sweeney’s suggestions for greater details on evaluating a child’s candidacy.)

Performing Neonatal Hydrotherapy

As already discussed, neonatal hydrotherapy is not the same thing as swaddled bathing. An experienced clinician can manage a seven to eight minute swaddled bathing session without a helping hand, even on the littlest neonate. With neonatal hydrotherapy, it works best with two caregivers. While this is not essential, it makes more movement possible to have a caregiver at the head and shoulder area and another at the lumbar and pelvis region. The baby starts out swaddled in a flexed position, neutrally postured. Upon immersion there is an opportunity for water adjustment by the child. After a minute or two, guided movement patterns are performed from a base of stability. One clinician stabilises (e.g. the head and shoulders) and the other promotes movement (at the lumbar spine and pelvis).

Therapists looking for potential movement patterns should consider the Accordion, Rotating Accordion, Near Leg and Far Leg Watsu patterns described by Schoedinger in Watsu in aquatic rehabilitation. Sessions are performed in near 98° Fahrenheit (36.7° celsius) water in specialised basins lasting no more than ten minutes and end in swaddling and – when possible – nursing.

Practitioners who are interested in exploring the exploding world of physiotherapists working in the NICU are directed to Chokshi. Clinicians who are not yet sold on the need for swaddling during bath time should take a look at this 2014 study comparing the effects of swaddled and conventional bathing methods on body temperature and crying duration. The evidence is accumulating. Warm water immersion, especially when coupled with skilled movement exploration, is becoming an important, safe and viable option on the NICU.


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