During the toddler years (1-3 years old), a child continues to develop physically, mentally, and emotionally. This is a time of many small and large changes in the child’s ability to move, act, and react to his or her environment, which is largely driven by how well his or her cranial and spinal nerves are functioning.
The cranial nerves and spinal nerves are direct extensions of the brain.
The cranial nerves are direct extensions of the brain that leave the skull by piercing through the meninges (the membranous covering of the brain and spinal cord) and moving into the face and neck to innervate the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and pharynx. The longest cranial nerve (vagus nerve) continues into the thorax and abdominal cavity to innervate the lungs, heart, and digestive organs.
The spinal nerves are also extensions of the brain but move into the body via long nerve tracts within the spinal cord housed and protected by the vertebral column. These spinal nerves exit the spinal cord, also by piercing the membrane covering (meninges), between the vertebrae through spaces called intervertebral foramina to innervate the arms, legs, and all the organs of the body below the head.
Impingement of the cranial or spinal nerves adversely affects toddler development.
In my health blog on infant health and development, I wrote about how an infant’s cranial or spinal nerves may become impinged, and how an impingement of these nerves may adversely affect the development of that infant.
This is true for toddler development as well.
- The toddler may still be affected by the aftermath of his birth.
- The toddler may have sustained injuries during the first year of life that resulted in connective tissue restrictions, which have not been resolved, and are still affecting nerve function.
- The toddler may have experienced medical procedures in the first year of life, or thereafter, resulting in adhesions, or other connective tissue restrictions.
- Toddlers are inherently unstable as they learn to stand, walk, run, jump, ride tricycles, and so forth. Many falls occur from which they appear to heal but that result in connective tissue restrictions.
- Emotional stress imprints on a child from the first day of life (even during the time in the mother’s womb). This may manifest in behavioral issues, learning difficulties, ability to bond, sleeping difficulties, as well as musculoskeletal tension and increased susceptibility to illnesses, such as colds, the flu, ear infections, sinus problems, digestive issues, and so forth.
- Musculoskeletal tension from the inflammatory process of illness, being exposed to medical procedures, injuries, and emotional/mental stress may result in long term restrictions in the connective tissue of the body, manifesting as poor posture, impaired motor skill development, asymmetry in the use of the body, hyperactivity, restlessness, irritability, difficulty sleeping, lethargy, and difficulty with concentration, focus, and mental tracking.
The connective tissue holds the body together.
All cells, tissues, organs, and other structures are enveloped, compartmentalized, and linked together by the connective tissue which comes primarily in the form of fascia, tendons, and ligaments. It can vary from soft as gel to as hard as bone. Blood and bone are considered specialized forms of connective tissue.
Because the connective tissue weaves through, envelops, and holds together the entire body in a continuous fashion, any distortion of, or restriction in, the connective tissue will affect how well the structure within it functions, locally and further away. A restriction in the connective tissue can affect blood and lymph flow, nerve conduction, energy flow (meridians), muscle contraction and relaxation, range and ease of motion, organ function, mental function, and so forth.
The meninges pick up tension from anywhere in the body and transmit them to the brain and spinal cord.
Much ignored, and yet so important, are the meninges, which comprise a three-layered membrane system that envelops the brain and spinal cord as one unit. They also are a type of connective tissue and form compartments for the two cerebral hemispheres, the cerebellum, and the brain stem, which continues into the body as the spinal cord. These membranes have attachments to the inside of the skull bones, the first two neck (cervical) vertebrae and the bottom of the sacrum, at the bottom of the spine.
As already mentioned above, the cranial nerves pierce this membrane system (meninges) to leave the skull and innervate the eyes, ears, mouth, throat, lungs, heart, and digestive organs. The spinal nerves also pierce the meninges, as they exit the spinal cord between the vertebrae to innervate all the tissues and structures of the body below the head. Hence, trauma to anywhere along the spine, the sacrum, or the head, may cause tension on this membrane system and the brain tissue inside it.
This explains why a fall to the backside, a blow to the head, or even prolonged tension in the muscles of the back, may cause not only local discomfort and pain, but also impaired digestive function, impaired mental focus and clarity, difficulty breathing, and so forth.
Children often communicate physical or emotional stress by “misbehaving”.
Children often express this by being cranky, unfocused, tired all the time, disruptive, overactive, chaotic, or withdrawn. Head pain is often expressed by a baby or small child hitting or pressing its head against a hard surface. Not wanting to be touched may also be a way for a child who is in pain or discomfort to protect itself from additional pain, as we do when we don’t want anyone to touch an injured part of our body.
Trauma to the body, whether accidental or from medical procedures, stimulates an inflammatory process, which is the body’s attempt to repair the damage. This inflammatory process manifests as pain and hypersensitivity, heat, swelling (accumulation of fluid), and weakness, that over time resolves but may result in long term connective tissue restrictions manifesting as stiffness, weakness, and decreased range of motion, often accompanied by some level of pain or discomfort.
The cranial bones shift and may lock up in some places with trauma to the head or face.
Trauma to the head (face or skull) causes the cranial and/or facial bones to shift in order to accommodate the blow. Although the child appears to recover well from the trauma, one of more of the bones may become jammed in an off position that may distort the meninges and the openings through which the cranial nerves exit the skull.
As the nerves become stretched, squeezed, or distorted in some fashion, they start to relay messages from or to the brain in an erratic fashion, manifesting in symptoms such as head aches, impaired hearing, vision, smell or taste sensations, as well as difficulty with balance, swallowing, speech, sinus problems, increased ear infections, altered heart rhythm, difficulty breathing, or digestive issues.
Often these children are “diagnosed” with a sensory processing disorder (sensory integration disorder) during early childhood when they exhibit several of the above symptoms.
Symptoms resulting from trauma to the spine or sacrum may be localized pain or stiffness, but also include changes in digestion, bowel and bladder function, breathing difficulty, depending on which spinal nerves are involved. Moreover, trauma anywhere along the spine (including the sacrum) may be relayed upward to the head and manifest symptoms that seem unrelated to the trauma, such as headaches, balance issues, vision changes, and mental symptoms such as difficulty with concentration, focus, and memory.
The connective tissue “shrink wraps” around injuries and eventually becomes like a straight jacket to the structures held within it.
These restrictions in the connective tissue (meninges, fascia, tendons, and ligaments) often result when the inflammatory process due to injuries and illness resolves less than optimally. The connective tissue over time becomes distorted, tight, and increasingly rigid as it “shrink wraps” around the area of injury in an attempt to shore it up and protect it, instead of returning to its former elastic and resilient state.
As the connective tissue becomes tighter and harder, it reduces the amount of space for all structures within it, including the blood and lymph vessels, nerves, and meridians (energy pathways of the body), impairing the delivery of oxygen and nutrients, as well as the release of carbon dioxide and other toxins in the body. Moreover, nerve conduction may become erratic and the underlying supply of energy (as the electricity in the wires of our homes) may become imbalanced.
Toddlers don’t always have the language skills to tell us how and where they hurt.
Toddlers, and even older children, tend to accept physical pain as being normal and part of being alive in a human body. Hence, they often don’t even mention it. Yes, they cry in response to acute pain, but they tolerate and learn to ignore long term pain and discomfort to a surprising degree. Their behavior and physical appearance do give us plenty of clues, as mentioned above. These signs often appear in a delayed fashion, sometimes weeks later, as the body is still trying to heal.
My granddaughter has been suffering from musculoskeletal pain from the time she was born. Her way to express this discomfort and pain was, and still is, by constantly being physically busy and by avoiding bed time for as long as possible. Laying in bed at night or during nap time makes her more aware of her discomfort and gives her no way of distracting herself from it until the sleep of exhaustion just takes over. Until she was about 2 years old, before falling asleep, I could often hear her slamming her feet into the mattress over and over again for several minutes at a time. And yes, she was crying a lot.
Once while we were playing with her calico critter family, she told me that she always has pain, every day. She “gets a break” when she goes to sleep. Another time, she told me that her legs always hurt and are “bendy”. Yet another time she let me know that her head hurts often, even when she was a baby. This sharing was always unsolicited and came usually during times of play. She frequently asks me to “unwind” her because of the relief it brings her.
Craniosacral therapy and energetic unwinding of the spine, joints, and muscles promote toddler development and general health.
Musculoskeletal health is intricately tied via the connective tissue to organ health, such as regular heart beat, breathing rate, digestion, bowel movement, and urination, as well as mental and emotional health and well-being.
Craniosacral therapy, and energetic unwinding, is a gentle and most effective way to help the body to release the various connective tissue restrictions to improve function and health to all the tissues of the body, including the brain.