No one knows better than Paula Tarver that children don’t come with instruction manuals.
“At birth, a newborn is placed in a mother’s arms, and she’s expected to know instinctively what to do,” said the Valrico woman.
But instincts aren't always enough.
As an children’s occupational therapist for 16 years, Tarver, 49, has worked with hundreds of children with a variety of disabilities who could have been helped earlier if their parents had the right information.
To help educate parents recognize problems, she and fellow occupational therapist Jeanne Martin have come up with a guide called “Advance My Baby: The Ultimate Secrets of Healthy Development for Your Baby – Birth to 3 Years.”
Child development is a topic Tarver knows well. Since 1999, she has been an occupational therapist with the Florida Elks Children’s Therapy Services Inc., traveling to homes throughout Hillsborough and Polk counties to provide therapy for children with disabilities. The second therapist hired, Tarver is one of 21 Elks therapists in the state.
“When they hired me, they told me I had six months to make a difference in a child,” said Tarver. “I quickly realized I wouldn’t make much of a difference unless I trained the parents, too. Eighty percent of parents don’t know basic development. I was picking up children who were two to three years delayed because they were missing milestones. Nobody was teaching and training the parents.”
Her partner, Martin, an Elks therapist in the Fort Myers/Naples area, was experiencing the same frustrating delays.
That’s why the two put their heads together and wrote the manual.
“We realized we needed to reach millions with this information,” said Tarver. “So we came up with a manual that focuses on the six developmental areas in an easy-to-read format.”
It’s a manual for all parents but is especially critical for parents with children who may have autism, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and other disabilities.
“Early intervention and detection are key,” said Tarver. She’s found that, by diagnosing and providing therapy at an early age, she’s been able to conquer many developmental roadblocks.
“The first chapter of the manual is on sensory integration,” she explained. “That’s the way the central nervous system processes information. We hope that will become a term every parent knows. Children with undeveloped sensory integration can have speech and language delays.”
Problems with sensory integration also can lead to conditions such as ADHD, because children are unable to filter input. By doing sensory integration exercises with such children, Tarver said she’s had a 90 percent success rate getting the children off medications designed to control ADHD.
“We do therapeutic listening with modulated music that teaches the child with ADHD to hone in on voices and filter out distractions,” she said. “We’ve also used it on autistic kids who were able to concentrate for 30 minutes at a time following therapeutic listening.”
She recalls one 12-year-old who was labeled mentally retarded. “It turned out she simply had sensory integration issues,” said Tarver.
She also worked with a 9-year-old with cerebral palsy who was unable to walk.
“For nine years, he watched his twin brother run and jump, and he was basically a quadriplegic,” said Tarver. “I started doing therapeutic listening with him and, in two months, he no longer needed his braces. By four months, he was able to walk across a balance beam. I see miracles like this all the time.”
Autism, she said, is usually not diagnosed until age 3. But using the milestones in her manual, parents can pick up on autism at 3 to 4 months old.
“I met one mom with an 18-month-old who wouldn’t take solid food, never slept through the night and couldn’t stand to be trapped in a high chair,” said Tarver. “By age 2, the child had no language skills and had extreme stranger anxiety. They couldn’t take him out in public. This is pretty common for autistic kids.”
The mother asked Tarver for help.
“I started using therapeutic listening and, in four months, he was speaking in sentences,” she said.
“This is one of the reasons we decided to write this book. We wanted to nip some of these problems in the bud. We wanted parents to be proactive instead of reactive,” she said. “You’ll find information in this manual that you can’t find anywhere else. And the worst that can happen is you will have a child who thrives and reaches his full potential.”
Published Feb. 1, the 204-page “Advance My Baby” manual discusses sensory integration and signs of sensory processing disorder in the first chapter. The succeeding 12 chapters are divided into ages from premature newborns to 36 months. Each chapter lists the fine and gross motor skills as well as cognitive and language skills a child that age should achieve along with exercises to help them reach these milestones.
For instance, in the chapter for birth to 2 months old, a baby placed on his tummy should be able to lift his head off the floor for 1 to 2 seconds. Parents can encourage children to lift their heads by making faces or rattling toys in front of them.
Parents can stimulate hearing and vision by using toys with lights or sounds to gain attention. An infant this age should be able to turn his head from side to side when presented with this stimulus.
At the end of each chapter is a monthly home checklist to record the child’s activities.
“We developed this manual so every child has a chance to develop to the maximum of his ability,” she said. “It’s not fair that my daughter was always six months to a year ahead of other children simply because we knew what to do.”
Tarver said she included a chapter for babies born prematurely because the number of premature births is growing in this country.
“Up to 62 percent of all babies in the neonatal intensive care are premature births,” she said. “Five hundred thousand premature babies are born each year.”
Many of these children experience sensory integration problems.
“My heart goes out to these parents,” Tarver said. “They have no clue what to do with this tiny infant. So oftentimes, they do nothing and it causes more delays. The manual gives them an idea of some things they can do to help their baby thrive.”
In addition to providing parents with the useful manual, Tarver and Martin also provide online assessments, giving parents an idea if their child is meeting developmental milestones.
“It includes a 45-minute survey, and parents get a report back that they can take with them to their pediatrician,” said Tarver. “We’re hoping this manual will become a pediatrician’s best friend.”
She’s also hoping to find business sponsors so she can donate manuals to hospitals so all new mothers will receive one.
“It’s all about empowerment,” said Tarver. “We want to make sure everyone who needs one has one. This shouldn’t be a best-kept secret. Everyone needs to have this information.”
For her work educating parents, Tarver was recently recognized by the Tampa Bay Business Journal as one of 52 finalists for the 2011 Business Woman of the Year Awards. She will be honored at a ceremony Aug. 19.
For an assessment and a copy of the manual, which sells for $49.95, visit advancemybaby.com. Or call toll-free 855-AMB-BABY.