By Benjamin Shield, Ph.D
Why do we treat babies and infants? The best answer was given by an osteopath who said, “When we look at a child, we never know who or what it could be. And when we look at an adult, we never know who or what that adult could have been.”
Dr. William Sutherland, the founder of Cranial Osteopathy had a favorite expression. He said, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” If we are able to correct the lesional patterns that may begin as early as in utero, patterns that are created during the birthing process, or even postnatally, we are able to forestall many conditions that may plague the individual throughout life. We can assist in preventing behavioral and personality problems, learning disabilities, sensory disorders, and structural problems. It is an honor to work with these children and one of the sweetest things we can do as practitioners.
It is appropriate that we speak about treating children in the scope of cranial therapy. Children have been an inspiration for this therapy. It was only after Dr. Andrew Taylor Stills, the founder of osteopathy which led to Cranial Osteopathy, tragically lost his children to meningitis, that he began his investigation into the nature of his work.
Babies have numerous mechanisms that they are born with to help them to self-correct the lesional patterns that may develop at birth. They have the reciprocal tension membranes that act as an internal guide to bring the cranial bones and membranes into balance. When a baby cries, the increased cranial pressure helps to put the bones and membranes back into position. While crying creates an external pressure, suckling creates an internal pressure that helps to normalize the baby’s head. And as the baby suckles, the mother will do the most basic of all cranial techniques, which we see in cultures throughout the world. The mother will instinctively stroke the baby’s head while it suckles. As the baby creates motion of the cranial bones, the mother is stroking the baby’s head and assisting the molding process.
All of these things, as well as the baby yawning, self-corrective behavior, and the birthing process, itself, can help guide a child’s head into balance. But when the forces of birth are too great, they may overwhelm the baby’s ability to self-correct. Then it becomes our job, as therapists, to assist the child into balance. Not every child may need correction, but I feel that every child should have the opportunity of being evaluated.
When a child comes in for treatment, we want to use as many of the child’s resources as we can. Keeping the parents in close view of the child, adjusting our voice and tempo to soothe the child, having the temperature, light and sounds comfortable to the child is important. It is our goal that, as we work with care, that the baby will begin to embrace both the therapy and the therapist as resources, as well.
Babies constantly give us messages when they may be overstimulated or overwhelmed. Their movements may become jerky. They may stiffen or arch their back. They may turn red or pale. They may begin to cry inconsolably. Their body position may have difficulty crossing the midline. With these, and numerous other ways that the baby communicates, the practitioner assists the child to treat in a manner that is best for that child at that moment.
When we work with a baby, there are principles to consider before we begin to do anything clinical with our hands. Among the most important principles is to offer the child respect. Treat the child as we would hope to be treated. We also want to offer the child an environment of trust and safety. This is of fundamental importance. And as we treat, we want to have an ongoing conversation with the child, even if it is in our own thoughts. We want to constantly be asking the child if it wants more space and more possibilities where we are working. That way, the treatment is something that is done with the baby, rather than on the baby.
Babies are born into this world with an inherent ability to socially engage with their care givers and with their environment. This ability to socially engage is the most evolved way that a child can deal with stress.
If this ability is unavailable or overwhelmed, due to traumatic perinatal events, a baby may default to a less evolved manner of dealing with stress. This level is sympathetic activation or what we know as fight or flight. But babies, as we know, have little ability to fight or to flee, so often they may default to the least evolved manner of handling stress which is parasympathetic immobilization, shock and/ or dissociation.
These states that are created at such an early age can create an autonomic set point that can, if untreated, remain with the individual their entire lives. They can form the foundation of how we react to stress, even the types of illnesses we get.
In utilizing craniosacral therapy, we assist the infant to attain a more optimal state of structure and autonomic states. We can realize an immediate effect on many clinical conditions, and prevent many conditions from developing in the future.