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Certified neonatal therapists address babies’ special needs

Jan. 20, 2021, 3:40 PM

Vicki Scala, MS, OTR/L, CNT, left, and Amy Darrow, PT, DPT, CPST, CNT, are certified neonatal therapists at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
Vicki Scala, MS, OTR/L, CNT, left, and Amy Darrow, PT, DPT, CPST, CNT, are certified neonatal therapists at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Jessica Pasley

Certified neonatal therapists are not common, as there are only approximately 500 of these specialized professionals in the world.

Fortunately, Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt has two on staff.

Vicki Scala, MS, OTR/L, CNT, and Amy Darrow, PT, DPT, CPST, CNT work with high-risk infants and their families in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Both received their certifications in 2018 and have already seen positive results in the level of care provided as well as additional program development and staff education surrounding this young patient population.

“I have witnessed the evolution of therapy services over the decades,” said Scala, an occupational therapist in Pediatric Rehabilitation Services at Children’s Hospital. “Gaining this additional certification was the vehicle for me to validate my current knowledge base and give me the opportunity to take the time to evaluate and study what the most recent literature says about early intervention and how babies develop.

“I want to stay as updated and be as fresh of a practitioner as possible so that I am providing the most benefit for my patients and families. When you are in the throes of caring for babies and teaching their caregivers, you don’t always get the chance to dive into the latest research and adapt those techniques. We are able to put into place evidence-based therapies to better serve our patient population,” Scala said.

A neonatal therapy certification was created in 2016 to validate and standardize the necessary experience, education and knowledge to work in the NICU setting.

In 2017 there were only 100 certified neonatal therapists. It has steadily grown over the years.

Children’s Hospital hopes to grow the number of certified therapists as well.

“Vanderbilt is at the leading edge of neonatal therapy skill,” said Darrow, a physical therapist. “We are striving to be the best in finding the next level of care. We want to improve our skills and what we can offer our families and babies. This certification takes me to the next level so that I can provide the most expert care possible.”

Occupational and physical therapists in the NICU address sensory needs, positioning, motor development and family education to help families have a greater understanding of their baby’s developmental strengths and needs.

While both therapists specialize in specific areas of development, they agree that the patients in their care have specialized needs and it’s imperative the babies are kept on track for the best outcomes possible.

“It can be as simple as swaddling a baby’s arms during a diaper change,” said Darrow, when describing calming activities provided during a therapy session.

“Parents especially seem to enjoy learning infant massage to provide positive touch for their baby,” Scala added.

Since acquiring the certification, both therapists said that achieving the level of knowledge and advanced approaches to care has allowed the pair to expand the program and services to include the smaller and more pre-term babies and their families that previously weren’t seen until they were older.

“Gaining this level of confidence has definitely propelled our program,” said Scala. “It’s allowed us to engage in program development and really explore what the needs are.”

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