How do you calm a cranky baby? First, create an atmosphere of safety. Be calm and quiet. Move slowly. Apologize to the baby for any trauma that occurred during the birth. Use a featherlight touch. Listen with your hands.
That’s the approach used by Sari Lewis, OTR/L, RCST®, an occupational therapist and registered craniosacral therapist. “I slow everything down to a slow pace, which is what the nervous system really loves,” says Lewis, who uses craniosacral therapy (CST) techniques to help new babies rest and calm down.
The practice is based on the assumption that restrictions in the ebb and flow of cerebrospinal fluid surrounding and protecting the brain and spinal cord can be released, providing a sense of relief and wellbeing. CST practitioners are trained to become attuned to these restrictions, and to release them by using gentle fingertip contact with the fascia, or the connective tissue of the body.
In her practice, Lewis works on people of all ages. For newborns, she offers CST for feeding difficulty, colic, sleeping or settling issues and correcting trauma that may have occurred during birth.
Think of the labor and delivery process for a baby in utero as a major disruption—like being jarred awake from a nice nap on the sofa. CST is an attempt to help the baby “unwind” and regain the sense of calm that was present in the womb.
Any medical intervention—a monitoring probe, vacuum, Pitocin (a drug used to induce labor) or forceps—can be tough on a brand new nervous system. Pressure on the head while the baby is in the maternal pelvis can affect the shape of the baby’s palate. And even labor that ends in an emergency cesarean section can be an abrupt and unsettling transition for the baby.
By observing the way a baby tries to self-position, Lewis senses what position is most comfortable. Then she gently helps the baby get there. “If we can find the position they were in before labor started, that position can be very calming to them.”
Creating an atmosphere of peace during therapy sessions is a big part of CST. Lewis works to model this approach in the presence of parents, who are often feeling overwhelmed, overloaded and exhausted. “If the parents are feeling calmer in their nervous systems, then the babies are going to read off of that and everyone will be calmer,” she says.
CST can be traced to William G. Sutherland, DO, an osteopathic physician who practiced in the early part of the 20th century. Sutherland spent 30 years developing treatment procedures referred to as “osteopathy in the cranial field.”
In the early 1970s, John E. Upledger, DO, condensed and simplified some of Sutherland’s concepts. Upledger established his own institute offering CST courses that could be taught in a comparatively brief period of time. Today, the list of organizations offering many incarnations of Upledger’s CST training is long and varied and is considered by highly trained physicians to be a departure from the practice of osteopathy.
CST is often described as a somewhat “mystical” approach. Even Lewis might agree with that: “The more I talk about it, write about it and describe it, the more obscure it turns out to be.” Nevertheless, Lewis says that repeatedly she has seen babies become calm, quiet and settled after a session with CST.
No peer-reviewed research supports the efficacy of CST. There is a variety of training associations and certifications. In Arizona, CST practitioners must be licensed in a field where they are allowed to physically touch clients. They can then offer CST services to the public. Sessions typically cost about as much as a higher-end massage.
Chiropractors, physical therapists, massage therapists, Rolfers™ and other hands-on bodywork professionals can become certified in CST.
Ruth Lim, MD, a member of the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AzAAP), has been practicing in Mesa for more than 30 years. Since 1996, she has incorporated integrative medicine techniques for young patients, including nutrition, homeopathy and other complementary and alternative options. She teaches parents how to use Chinese massage to calm infants. She has also referred young patients to select outside providers for manipulative therapies, including CST.
If done correctly, these therapies can help to “rebalance the computer in your brain,” says Lim. But she says she would not endorse CST as the sole method for treating feeding issues or colic. “It is a complementary technique, to be used in addition to other things. Say you have a colicky baby and you come see me. I’m an integrative physician. I will start with nutrition first.”
Launa White, a massage therapist in Scottsdale, has received treatments from Lewis for 15 years to help with fibromyalgia. When White found out she was pregnant with her son Xander, now 4, she knew she wanted Lewis in the delivery room to help provide a calming presence; she also wanted CST for the baby during labor and post delivery.
“She got her hands on him the minute he was born, and I would not have had it any other way,” says White. Comparing notes with friends about their newborns, she says, “Xander was one of the calmest, most easygoing babies” of the bunch.
“Was it me, as a mom? Was it her? I don’t know,” says White, “but if I have another one, I will have her work on him as soon as possible.”
CST is just one tool that a parent can use, says Lory Muirhead of Phoenix. Her son Lincoln was born in September with severe aortic stenosis, a heart condition that required surgery. Muirhead said she learned quite a bit about talk and touch from Lewis and her quiet, caring approach during a CST session a few weeks after surgery.
“I know it sounds mystical,” says Muirhead, “but I think it is important to give the baby an option to be heard. Sari [Lewis] gave me that tool. What she is doing is making a shift under the surface. You want that peace with your baby.”