Low Muscle Tone in Babies

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Low muscle tone in babies is known as hypotonia. Hypotonia is either a stand-alone condition or a symptom of a larger medical problem. A pediatrician can diagnose low muscle tone and prepare a treatment plan for babies with the condition. It is important for parents of children with hypotonia to have realistic expectations about their baby’s physical development and strength.

What is Low Muscle Tone?

Low muscle tone, or hypotonia, is a condition characterized by loose, floppy muscles in children. Babies with low muscle tone have delayed motor skills, muscle weakness and coordination problems that can follow them into adulthood. They are likely to sit up, crawl, walk and speak later than babies without hypotonia; they often need physical or occupational therapy to reach these developmental milestones.

Causes of Low Muscle Tone

In some cases, low muscle tone is often caused by serious medical problems, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, hypothroidism or a neurological problem. Where no underlying medical condition exists, low muscle tone is known as benign congenital hypotonia. This form of hypotonia is generally milder; it often improves as a baby ages without special intervention. Benign congenital hypotonia probably has a genetic component, as it often runs in families.

Treatment for Low Muscle Tone

While some babies with low muscle tone require no special intervention as they grow, most babies will need some kind of support or special treatment. Physical therapy helps infants with sitting up, crawling and walking. Speech therapy is also useful for babies with delayed speech. Children with hypotonia benefit greatly from involvement in sports and physical activities, although most cannot participate at the competitive level. Hippotherapy, or therapeutic horse riding, has also been used with some success in children with hypotonia.

Diagnosis and Evaluation

When a child has suspected low muscle tone, the first step is to consult a pediatrician for a thorough evaluation, and to rule out any major medical issues that could be causing the hypotonia. More than 50 percent of patients with hypotonia are diagnosed by history and physical evaluation alone, although DNA testing and cranial imaging may also be used in diagnosis. Parents of babies with hypotonia are also encouraged to lower their expectations for their child’s physical prowess. While it is unlikely that a baby with hypotonia will become a star athlete, they can often improve their physical strength dramatically with the right interventions and support.