There are numerous milestones to be met within the first year of a baby’s life such as nursing (sucking and swallowing), eye movement, developing visual acuity, hearing, making sounds, moving the head from side to side, holding up the head, sitting up, rolling over and from side to side, crawling, standing, and walking. Alongside the obvious musculoskeletal development, the baby also develops mental and social skills.
Although most babies achieve these milestones with relative ease, there are plenty of babies who seem to struggle more or less with any one of these tasks. Often we are mystified as to what causes these difficulties.
We know that trauma, infection, or inflammation affect a person’s well being and functional abilities. It is no different with infants. Their first exposure to trauma, infection, or inflammation starts with the birthing process.
Giving birth to a child takes a tremendous toll on the mother’s body. And exiting the womb to enter into the world is a daunting task for the baby as well, as evidenced by swelling, bruising, and head deformity that go hand in hand with being born.
It is quite a miracle that many babies recover quite well and go on to achieve all the milestones within the first year of life. Nevertheless, we are quite aware of the many different struggles of meeting these milestones. One major reason for these difficulties may be the effect of birth trauma on the cranial nerves and the spinal nerves.
The cranial nerves exit the skull through tiny spaces (foramina) and find their way to the nose, ears, eyes, mouth, pharynx (throat), and even two of the muscles that move the head and shoulders. One of these cranial nerves, the vagus nerve finds its way all the way down to the ascending and transverse colon. (click on any picture for larger image)
There are twelve cranial nerves (CN I – XII) which allow us to smell, see, move our eyes, hear, maintain balance, taste, swallow, and talk, as well as raise our shoulders and turn and tilt our head in some fashion.
The 10th cranial nerve (vagus nerve) is quite special, because it has so many different functions. It doesn’t stop at the head but follows a course through the neck into the chest cavity, weaves a network of nerve branches around the esophagus, connects with the heart and the lungs, and moves through an opening in the diaphragm into the abdominal cavity to innervate the digestive tract, where it promotes digestion and peristalsis (the movement of undigested food through the intestinal tract). The vagus nerve also supports a regular heartbeat and respiratory rate.
The deformation of the head, as the head bones partially overlap to allow passage through the birth canal, may affect the functioning of any of these nerves, temporarily or permanently. Most of the time, the head bones shift back into their normal place, releasing any traction on the cranial nerves.
However, with some birth trauma, especially the use of forceps, ventouse (vacuum-traction device), or excessively strong and accelerated uterine contractions due to the use of pitocin, the head bones may remain jammed for some time. The nerves, which travel through the foramina (spaces) which happen to be located at, or near, the junctions between the head (cranial) bones, remain partially trapped. This may cause them to become hypo- or hyperactive, impairing the function of the structures (muscles, organs) they innervate.
These impairments manifest as difficulty with eye movements, hearing, nursing (latching on, sucking, or swallowing), digestion (colics), or moving the head from side to side, or raising the shoulders. Shoulder restriction may show up as limited arm movement.
The spinal nerves exit the spinal column between the vertebrae through spaces, called the intervertebral foramina. Compression, or twisting, of the spine during the birth process may impinge on any of these spinal nerves resulting in the delay of motor skill development such as raising the head, moving the arms, using the hands and fingers, rolling over, sitting up, crawling, standing, or walking.
All the nerves that innervate the muscles of the shoulder, arms, and hands exit the cervical spine (neck) between the 4th and 7th neck vertebrae (C4-C5) to form the brachial plexus behind the clavicle. The axillary nerve leaves this plexus to innervate the deltoid muscles, and the median, ulnar, and radial nerves travel down the arm to innervate the arm, hand, and fingers. Gross and fine motor skills may be affected if any of these nerves (or the brachial plexus itself) becomes injured when the baby is being pulled out of the birth canal by the arm or shoulder, or if the neck itself is injured when using forceps or the ventouse.
A similar plexus of nerves (lumbosacral plexus) is formed by the nerves exiting the lumbar spine and the sacrum. These nerves are the femoral, obdurator, and sciatic nerve and their many branches. Injury or entrapment of any of these nerves will affect the way we use our legs or feet.
Although babies can’t talk, they are eager to communicate with us by crying, smiling, cooing, or babbling. They also let us know if they have physical discomfort or pain by crying, fussing, fidgeting, or avoiding physical contact.
For some infants, going to sleep at nap time or at night is daunting. Body pain and discomfort may increase as the infant lies in bed without moving around much or being soothed by the warmth and rhythmic movement of being held by mom or dad. The baby may also feel alone and cut off from the familiar environment and activities of the day.
Being born is a challenging event no matter how smooth the process. The baby’s head bones (cranial bones) have to shift, sometimes drastically, to fit through the birth canal, or in response to the pressure of intense and extended labor, and the spine takes a lot of pressure as the baby pushes through the birth canal.
The challenges increase exponentially with interventions such as the use of pitocin, forceps, or a suction device (ventouse). All of these interventions, while at times necessary, increase the pressure on, or cause injury, to the baby’s head and spine.
For instance, pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin is used to start (induce) labor, restart stalled labor (often caused by the use of an epidural anesthetic), or augment labor. This often results in contractions that are too forceful and too closely spaced. Forceps and suction devices are known to cause injury to the mother’s reproductive organs and perineum, as well as the baby’s head. Sometimes, a baby’s exit is assisted by a tug on the arm or the shoulder, potentially causing injury to the brachial plexus by stretching (tractioning) the nerves of this plexus.
All these difficulties during birth may cause connective tissue (fascia, ligaments, tendons) restrictions that may only slowly heal or become permanent over time. Since nerves, blood and lymph vessels, and meridians are embedded in the fascia, tightening or distortion of this connective tissue may lead to impaired nerve conduction, blood or lymph flow, or impaired energy flow.
Babies recover from much of the birth trauma within the first three months. Colics disappear and the baby settles down into a regular sleep cycle. The aftershocks of the birth trauma may however linger on for a year or more. These may show up as difficulties meeting mile stones, asymmetry in movements, weakness in one body part or another, or postural issues. Gross motor and fine motor skills may be affected as well, manifesting in clumsiness or a tendency to trip and fall. Irritability, fussiness, difficulty bonding, and difficulty focusing may all be signs that the baby hasn’t entirely recovered from the birth process.
Craniosacral therapy helps the baby to recover from birth trauma by assisting the body to release tension and restriction in the connective tissue. This release allows the head bones, facial bones, and spine, to readjust and find their proper place. Moreover, nerve conduction, blood, lymph, and energy flow improve as the connective tissue relaxes and provides more space for these structures. As the physical discomfort and pain recede, the baby becomes more peaceful, joyful, and engaged with its parents and environment. Health increases, mental and physical functions improve, and mile stones are met with greater ease.
Craniosacral therapy is utmost gentle, non-invasive, and supportive of the healing process and can be enjoyed as soon as the baby is born, or any time thereafter.