The study has also suggested that babies who do high intensity treadmill training may walk even sooner.
Professor Dale Ulrich of the University of Michigan Division of Kinesiology and principal investigator on the treadmill training project said that getting infants walking is critical because so many other skills such as social skills, motor skills, advancement of perception and spatial cognition, arise from locomotion.
"The key is if we can get them to walk earlier and better then they can explore their environment earlier and when you start to explore, you learn about the world around you. Walking is a critical factor in development in every other domain," Ulrich said.
Babies with typical development learn to walk independently at about 12 months of age while infants with Down syndrome typically learn to take independent steps at 24-28 months.
For the study, 30 infants were randomly assigned lower intensity, generalized treadmill training, or high intensity, individualized treadmill training, implemented in the homes by their parents. The training was used as a supplement to physical therapy.
Ulrich said that initially, all parents worked with their infants on the treadmill for eight minutes a day, five days a week. The parent sat on a bench that straddled the treadmill and held the infant as the child took steps on the treadmill. All of the parents began with low intensity training, but after the infant could take 10, 20, and 30 steps per minute, intensity was gradually increased for half the infants.
High intensity training included increasing the treadmill belt speed, using longer durations, and adding lightweights to the ankles, with intensity tailored to each child.
Results showed that infants in the higher-intensity, individualized training group increased their stepping more dramatically over the course of training, and attained most of the motor milestones at an earlier mean age.
The treadmills are about 1,200 dollars each, and Ulrich said that the hope is that more hospitals and Down syndrome parent organizations will rent the equipment to parents.
The study entitled "The Effects of Intensity of Treadmill Training on Developmental Outcomes and Stepping in Infants with Down Syndrome," is published in the Journal of American Physical Therapy.