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?
Parents of special needs children require superpower strength and attitudes each and every day – the sheer physicality of 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 is often severely underestimated.
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.
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!
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. 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, enable 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.
So this list of exercises is written with your time restrictions in mind. It has been tried and tested by the children’s physio team at Bumble Bee Physio, and has been compiled with the help of an adult musculoskeletal physiotherapist, a strength trainer and 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, while also looking after your own body and preventing injury.
If any of the following tasks sound familiar to you, take a look at the exercises provided and give them a go. Let us know how you get on, by following our social media!
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.
As it’s a 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 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 can lead to fatigue, pain and impacted posture – all of which must be avoided.
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, 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 whilse 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’s 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. 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 if you haven’t developed 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.
1. Upper back extensions. These strengthen the muscles that hold the shoulder blades in place, and will help keep you in alignment and prevent back pain. Lie on your front, and raise your arms into a ‘Y’ shape above your head. Lift them up off the ground, hold for 10 seconds and increase to 30 seconds as you improve. Then bring your outstretched arms to the sides, in a ‘T’ shape, lift them up off the floor and hold for 10-30 seconds. Repeat three times. Aim to complete three of each, in a row, without stopping!
2. Tabletop knees. This exercise strengthens your deep abdominal muscles, which hold your spine in a neutral position when lifting, stabilising and protecting the joints. Surprisingly, this abdominal muscle does not give you a six-pack as it is a much deeper muscle. Lie on your back with your knees bent, and feet flat on the floor. Put your hands on your hips. Squeeze your back into the floor and hold. Remember to breathe! On the breath out, lift one leg up so your shin is parallel to the ceiling. Take a breath in, then when exhaling lift the other knee to match. Return to the start. Repeat this 10 times with each leg.
Hip abductions. This exercise strengthens the gluteus medius, the main stabiliser of the knee, and hip. It is especially important if you have knee or hip issues, or if you lift your children lots! Lie on your side, with your knees bent, and your shoulders, hips and ankles in line with each other. Put your hand on your hip bone, and make sure it stays still! Keeping your ankles together, raise your uppermost knee slowly, until you feel your hip start to move. Stop there and return to the start, slowly. Repeat 15 times on each leg. To progress this, do the same exercise with your top leg straight, lifting your whole leg off the floor.
2. Inner range quadriceps. Most people have strong quads for most of their leg movement but their quads tend to be weak at the end of the range, when your knee is almost straight. You need this strength to stabilise the knee during lifting, twisting, and squatting movements. Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, and a rolled-up towel under your knee. Squeeze your knee into the towel and raise your foot up. Hold for 10 seconds,and repeat 15 times on each leg. When this becomes easy, use an ankle weight, or the knee extension machine in the gym. You may find you can lift a much heavier weight when your knee is fully flexed. By all means work on this strength too, but then lower the weight, and work on the last bit of extension for knee stability. You will need to reduce the weight for this.
1. Bicep curls. There are many different curl options, with your arm in different positions, to strengthen different muscle groups. We have chosen this one because it mimics your arm position for lifting children,and holding children at their trunk to support them in sitting and standing. Stand with a dumb-bell in each hand, by your side. It is useful to look in the mirror for this exercise. Start with your hand facing inwards towards your body, bend your elbow, and turn your hand so it is facing upwards. Make sure you keep your elbows by your side, and do not move your trunk or back. Repeat 10 times on each side. If this is difficult, reduce the weight. If this is easy and you could do more, increase the weight.
- Weighted squats and deadlifts. These are compound movements involving the entire body and lots of muscle groups. They are very useful if you have bigger children and lift from the floor frequently. If you have never done these exercises, ask someone in the gym to show you first. Start with the bar on its own to get used to the movement. If you find it uncomfortable, you may need to do some stretches to increase your mobility. Either way, do not give up! Practice and repetition will improve your strength and mobility, and your confidence. When you can do 10 repetitions comfortably with the bar, start to add some weight. If you lose your form and movement quality, the weight is too high. Quality over quantity!
1. Single leg squats. These are excellent for improving your balance during those tricky situations when you’re about to fall over, for ankle stability, knee stability and core strength. Stand on one leg and hold the other behind you. Get your balance first. Slowly bend your knee, and slowly come back up. You will find you can only bend your knee a small amount to start with! It is more important to stay in control, stay upright and not fall, than to bend your knee further. So just get the hang of little bends without falling over. As you improve, bend your knee more and more. Repeat 10 times on each leg. When this becomes easy, try it on a Bosu board!
1. High intensity interval training (HIIT). Want to have the endurance and will power of a marathon, but don’t have the time for four-hour training runs? HIIT is your answer! Hannah Spink, founder of Bumble Bee Physio, is actually running a full marathon from 12-minute HIIT sessions alone! You can use any equipment, either a skipping rope, bike, or road running without a gym, a swimming pool, or in the gym; the cross trainer, bike, rowing machine, step machine or treadmill. Start with 1 minute at a moderate intensity, you should be able to have a conversation. Then increase the speed to almost 100% of your maximum ability for a further minute. Play around until you have the correct speeds, you should be able to do 6x sprints with 6x recovery and it should feel HARD!
1. Stretches. It is important to keep your joints flexible when doing lots of strenuous tasks such as lifting and bending. The main muscle groups which become tight are the flexor muscles of the lower limb, including hamstrings, calves, hip flexors and gluteus muscles. The quadriceps muscles can also become tight. Find the stretches that work for you, and hold for 20 seconds, three times a day. It is much more beneficial to do these little and often than an hour-long session once a week. Find a five-minute routine, with two to three muscle groups, and complete these when you wake up, after your work out, and in the evening. You will see the results quickly!
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 07399635486.
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