Treatment for Down Syndrome

Treatment for Down Syndrome: A Brief Overview

Caucasian baby girl with Down Syndrome playing with blocks
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When begun early in life, treatment for Down syndrome helps many who have it live long and productive lives.

Babies with Down syndrome are born with it: They have an extra chromosome -- a copy of chromosome 21. There's no cure for Down syndrome; rather, the goal of treatment is to manage the variety of physical, medical, and cognitive (thinking) disorders that many people with Down syndrome experience.

Medical Treatment for Down Syndrome

There's no medical treatment for Down syndrome itself. However, anyone with Down syndrome is at increased risk for other medical problems, although some never develop any. Common medical problems faced by people with Down syndrome include heart defects and thyroid, muscle, joint, vision, and hearing problems. Conditions seen less often in Down syndrome include leukemia and seizures.

A number of different approaches are used to treat these medical conditions.

Medications. Medications are used to treat some of the medical conditions that can accompany Down syndrome. For example, a person who has a seizure disorder may be given an anti-seizure medication, and someone with a thyroid problem may take medication for thyroid hormone-replacement therapy. 

Medical and Other Specialists. If your child is diagnosed with Down syndrome, your pediatrician is the main healthcare professional for managing his or her medical issues.

Most pediatricians have experience dealing with the medical problems commonly seen in children with Down syndrome. In addition:

  • If your child has a heart defect, he or she will also be followed by a heart specialist called a cardiologist. 
  • If your child has a thyroid problem, a pediatric endocrinologist (a doctor who specializes in treating disorders of the endocrine system, which produces hormones) will manage that part of his or her treatment.

    The hearing and vision problems seen in children with Down syndrome are no different from those seen in other children. Hearing problems are evaluated by an audiologist, vision problems by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.

    Surgical Treatment for Down Syndrome

    Some medical conditions seen in children with Down syndrome require surgery. However, it's important to know that needing surgery doesn't mean the child has a "more severe" case of Down syndrome or that he or she has the cognitive problems that can occur in this disorder. 

    Children who may need surgical treatment for Down syndrome include those with:

    Congenital Heart Defects. About 40% of children with Down syndrome are born with these defects. Some are mild and may improve on their own, but those that are more severe typically require surgery. 

    Gastrointestinal Defects.  

    • About 1% of children with Down syndrome are born with tracheoesophageal fistula, which causes choking and "bubbling up" of milk or formula.
    • From 2% to 15% are born with Hirschsprung disease, which causes large-intestine dysfunction.
    • An estimated 3% are born with imperforate anus, in which the anal opening is not present.

    The Importance of Early Intervention

    Children with Down syndrome are almost always referred to early intervention programs shortly after birth. Early intervention is a program of therapies, exercises, and activities designed specifically to help children with Down syndrome (and other disabilities). In fact, federal law requires that each state provide early intervention services for all children who qualify, with the goal of enhancing the development of infants and toddlers and helping families understand and meet the needs of their children.

    The most common early intervention services for babies with Down syndrome are physical therapy and speech therapy.

    Physical Therapy.  Focusing on motor development because most children with Down syndrome have hypotonia (low muscle tone, often called floppy baby syndrome), physical therapy teaches them to move their bodies in appropriate ways in addition to improving their muscle tone. The twofold goal is 1) to help them reach some of their motor milestones as they grow and 2) to help prevent problems, such as bad posture, that low muscle tone can cause.

    Speech Therapy. This is very important for children with Down syndrome, who often have small mouths and slightly enlarged tongues that make it hard for them to speak clearly. These problems can be made worse in children with low muscle tone (because their facial muscles don't work properly) and/or hearing problems.

    Speech therapists teach children to communicate more clearly through talking or, in some children with Down syndrome, through sign language.

    Adult Living

    Many people with Down syndrome successfully make the transition from living with their families to living independently, often in assisted living arrangements or group homes. Having a team of support professionals -- particularly occupational therapists -- who teach and foster self-help skills can help ensure that someone with Down syndrome achieves this important milestone.

    Older People With Down Syndrome: Special Concerns

    Aging brings the same set of challenges for people with Down syndrome as for everyone else, including increased risk of conditions such as depression and Alzheimer's disease. The treatment is similar, too. One difference for caregivers and even doctors, however, may be that it can be harder to notice the onset of these types of conditions in someone who has trouble communicating clearly about what he or she is feeling. Caregivers and doctors should be alert for signs that older people with Down syndrome may be developing additional disorders.

    Where to Find Emotional Support

    Coping with the emotional and practical aspects of caring for someone with Down syndrome can be overwhelming at times. Fortunately, there's no need to "go it alone." The many sources of support for people with Down syndrome and their families and caregivers include:

    • Down syndrome support groups, where people get together to talk about their experiences and offer each other encouragement and ideas
    • Counseling from mental health professionals, such as social workers, for help with specific needs and problems 



    American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statements. Health supervision for children with Down syndrome. Pediatrics. 2011;107:442-449.

    Cassidy, SB, Allanson, JE (Eds.). Management of genetic syndromes, 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons (2010). 

    “Gastrointestinal tract and Down syndrome.” National Down Syndrome Society (2016).   

    “Facts about Down syndrome.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016). 

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