Helping Babies Heal from Difficult Births with CranioSacral Therapy

By Janine Blanchard

Helping Babies Heal from Difficult Births with CranioSacral Therapy

By Janine Blanchard

Newborns and infants express themselves by gurgling, crying and wailing. But what if you feel like you can't satisfy their needs or simply don't know what's going on? In CranioSacral Therapy, we "listen" to what a baby has to say with our "thinking, feeling, seeing, knowing fingers," a term that the founder of Craniosacral Therapy, W.G. Sutherland, coined. We use touch to learn how trauma or difficult experiences have left their mark on the baby. This gives us important information about what's happening with a baby who seems upset or unhappy.

As a CranioSacral Therapist, I work with different tides in the body associated with a child's nervous system. I am able to palpate subtle rhythms in the body, similar to, but more subtle than the breath and heart beat. This helps me discover what might be inhibiting a child's balance or state of well-being. For example, with my knowing hands and fingers, I can find restrictions in parts of the skull. These can occur where a complicated or long birth process causes cranial bones to move and position themselves on top of each other. I can then help the body correct these problems.

Take newborn Amelia, for instance. Her family brought her into my office because she was in respiratory distress after birth. She spent weeks in the newborn intensive care unit so that her breathing could be monitored. After examining Amelia, I concluded that her breathing was shallow. Her little lungs felt like they were not using the room they had to unfold and breathe deeply. Her ribcage was not expanding all the way. We call these "underinflated" lungs. I see this in cases when the baby will attempt her first breath while the torso is still in the birth canal and only the head is delivered.

I worked to settle Amelia's lungs. First, I placed my fingers on her sternum and confirmed the "under-inflated" feel of the tissues under my fingers. I sensed the shock and trauma involved in this part of her body. I could feel pent-up energy, which I worked to release. After this, Amelia took a deep breath and fell into a deep relaxation. To help heal Amelia's trachea, which was irritated by medical procedures, I brought the tissues involved into a "point of balanced membranous tension," a physiological process that allows the tissues to relax. The next time I saw Amelia, the newborn didn't show symptoms of respiratory difficulties and all family members were less worried about their baby.

When newborns like Amelia experience difficult births, they can move away from what CranioSacral Therapists view as the ideal state: to be in the here-and-now, grounded in the present. Babies can move away from this state before and during the birthing process if they're exposed to fear. Fear can cause infants to disconnect from the present moment and function in the "fear" mode — worried and unsettled. They operate under the influence of the sympathetic nervous system, the system that kicks in the fight-or-flight response when in danger.

This process can begin in the womb. Imagine your baby in your womb. The close physiological connection between mother and her embryo influences the unborn and may set the stage for how the baby perceives and responds to challenging situations throughout life. This connection is known as prenatal programming. It is possible that a mother with constantly raised levels of cortisol, released under stress during her pregnancy, may well produce a child with hyperactivity or behavioral problems.

For this reason, it's important for pregnant mothers to reduce stress during pregnancy. What's more, creating the right birth environment is critical. Leaving the womb is an intense process and, ideally, babies should enter an environment that's as similar as possible to the physical environment of the womb. Babies should be welcomed by soft light, familiar voices and the warmth of the mother's arms. Such conditions stimulate the production of oxytoxin – also called the "love hormone" – to reaffirm the bond between mother and child.

A baby's first moments have an enormous influence on the weeks and possibly years or decades after labor. Ideally, we want mother and baby to feel as much skin-to-skin contact as possible. This also will release oxytoxin, a neuro-hormone that is naturally released in an intimate relationship. It is the hormone produced during orgasm, and it is an important hormone for breastfeeding mothers. This magical love hormone is stimulated in the mother by her infant's scent or by pheromones (chemicals sensed by smell).

When we don't provide a nurturing birth environment, the baby can experience trauma, physical problems and emotional imbalances. When baby cannot be close to mom after birth and is exposed to strangers, sharp light and loud noises, baby falls into a state of fight-or-flight. But the child is too small to react the way adults would. The baby's sympathetic system stays in high alert and the newborn in high stress and anxiety. This can result in symptoms like restlessness, digestive problems or sleeping difficulties.

Since a baby's nervous system is growing so rapidly at this point, the negative experiences can biologically follow the child through life, making it hard for the child to adapt comfortably to change and new beginnings. It is always amazing for me to see and feel how infants can slowly let go of their history of trauma and move back toward health. In a CranioSacral session, babies can unwind, which is a term for moving one's own tissues into a more adaptable state. Babies can literally re-experience parts of  their birth process, "telling" us their birth story. Sometimes they will move their bodies the way they did coming through the birth canal, but this time giving their tissues the opportunity to avoid getting stuck or traumatized.

Tony, for example, had to be delivered by vacuum extraction because of birth-related complications. He was a rather fidgety, restless newborn and had digestive problems. Medical findings were inconclusive. In our first session, I noticed tension in his cranial bones. There was also an irritation on the vagus nerve, which is the major nerve for controlling our digestive system and parasympathetic nervous system. I treated him by releasing tension in the cranial bones, freeing the vagal nerve and regulating the autonomic nervous system to function freely. During the session, Tony's system settled and his little body relaxed.

The tension in Tony's system was most likely caused by direct pressure on his head from the vacuum extraction. A natural birth usually involves less direct and more equal distribution of force. After a few more sessions working with other birth-related issues in his system, Tony became more content in everyday life and his digestive system started to settle. It's possible this therapy helped him avoid problems later in life. For example, we often find food sensitivities and attention disorders in children who experience births like Tony's.

In a therapy session, we have the opportunity to provide the most nurturing environment, correcting the initial traumas the body innocently embraced. In this way, babies' sense of presence is strong and healthy again. They no longer operate in the fear state. By re-establishing proper states in the body, old, unhealthy patterns fade and the infant is set to welcome new experiences and opportunities for growth and love.