All work and some play in McMaster’s Infant and Child Health (INCH) Lab
“It looks like play, it feels like play, but we’re actually collecting important data,” explains Dr. John Cairney, director of the INCH Lab and a professor in the Department of Family Medicine.
As a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Science, Erin Westman is quite familiar with a particular type of research and research subject – hers is specific to the resistance of soil bacteria to various drugs used in human medicine.
“It’s easy for me to find volunteers” Westman explains. “From any bit of soil I can grow billions of bacteria.”
So when Westman was speaking with a team member from the Infant and Child Health (INCH) Lab within the Department of Family Medicine, she found it particularly interesting to learn about a very different type of research.
The INCH Lab, which opened in 2013, conducts research into children’s overall health and development, with particular focus on motor coordination and development.
“It looks like play, it feels like play, but we’re actually collecting important data,” explains Dr. John Cairney, director of the INCH Lab and a professor in the Department of Family Medicine, in describing the lab’s research process.
In fact, the INCH Lab looks nothing like a traditional lab.
“They expected it to look like my lab,” says Westman of her two children. She was so intrigued by the INCH Lab that her children became participants in the lab’s Coordination and Activity Tracking in Children (CATCH) study.
With brightly coloured walls and art, and a comfortable waiting room with toys and a TV, the INCH Lab space at McMaster Innovation Park is designed to be welcoming and positive for both children and adults.
“I was floored by how well everything was set up,” she says, reflecting on her first visit. “They have really thought through working with kids.”
The CATCH study, in which Westman’s children participated, is looking to answer big questions and make a real impact on how both society and the health care community approach child development.
CATCH, which is focusing on four and five year old children, is building on previous research by Cairney around motor coordination, activity levels in children and developmental coordination disorder (DCD). Children with DCD have difficulty performing everyday tasks, which results from a delay in the development of motor skills or difficulty coordinating movement.
INCH Lab researchers, through studies like CATCH, are trying to determine both the causes of DCD and its impacts on a child’s level of physical activity and overall health as they age.
Early data is showing the impact is significant. For the general population, approximately 25 per cent of children are overweight or obese. For children with DCD, that climbs to 50 per cent.
So, does poor motor coordination lead to lack of physical activity, or does lack of physical activity lead to poor motor coordination? This is a central question for the INCH Lab and CATCH researchers.
“We’re the world’s leading research group looking at this question,” Cairney points out.
For Westman and her children, the wider impact of their involvement was a big part of becoming involved in CATCH.
“As a family, we saw this as contributing to the health of other kids” she says, “It felt like we were giving back in a real way.”
But that doesn’t stop kids from being kids. Westman’s son particularly enjoyed turning the activities into competitions.
“Before he’d start I’d hear him say, ‘I bet I can jump higher than the other kids!’”
While INCH’s staff leads the children through a variety of activities, parents complete a health questionnaire. Recognizing that families are busy, the INCH Lab offers flexible appointment times throughout the week, including evenings and weekends.
Families that become part of CATCH are asked to come back to the lab once a year for the next three years. Parents receive an annual report highlighting their child’s results and provides a comparison to other children the same age. They also receive a gift card to compensate them for their time.
“We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the families,” says Cairney, who sees them as part of the INCH family and not simply as research study participants.
The INCH Lab, their researchers and participant families are having a big impact. While those children with DCD will directly benefit from this research, the information will positively impact the health of all children.
Through identifying the proper time and way to treat DCD, the INCH Lab will also relieve burdens on the health care system. It’s known that obesity and lack of physical activity lead to other medical conditions and disorders later in life. Knowing more about DCD and its causes, developing appropriate treatments and educating the medical community will mean children don’t have to wait until more complex health conditions arise later in life in order to receive care.
“You can’t be disappointed when being part of CATCH,” Westman adds with a smile.
If your child is in the right age range (four to five years old) you can learn more about the CATCH study and how to take part in it by contacting the INCH Lab: Phone: 905.525.9140 ext. 27528. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.