Chiropractic Care for Newborns By Dr. Kelly Mortimer
There are three types of parents I encounter when I treat newborns. First are the parents that are immediately pro chiropractic care. Typically, these parents have received chiropractic care for most of their life or have taken a child to see a chiropractor previously. Next, are the pregnant moms I treat, who either ask about bringing their baby to see me or, near the end of their pregnancy, I discuss with them why chiropractic care would be beneficial and its safety and gentleness when it comes to newborns. Lastly, are parents who are skeptical or at their wits end. They do one of two things, hover and ask a lot of question or hand me their crying baby with tear filled eyes, “please do something”.
The Question Everyone Has
Let’s address that burning question first – is it safe? Yes chiropractic care is safe for babies and no, I’m not going to twist your baby’s neck or cause any popping sounds. Why? Because they don’t need that kind of force to achieve the intended results. If you think about it, babies’ bones are soft (not fully developed) and their muscles don’t have pent up tension from years of stress. Therefore, babies only require fingertip pressure. Yes, only a gentle touch or pressure on restricted bones or joints to restore proper function and movement. At an ICPA (International Chiropractic Pediatric Association) seminar, where I received my Webster Certification, I recall Dr. Jeanne Ohm stating, “About the amount of pressure you would use to test the ripeness of a tomato”. So in other words, very gentle.
What The Treatment Looks Like
When I’m treating a baby, they lay on a special pillow that allows me to place my hands underneath them and perform the adjustments with fingertip pressure. What it looks like is me staring at your baby with my hands underneath them and probably talking to them in baby voice or talking to you (but not in a baby voice I hope!), this allows me to get to know everyone better while performing the treatment. I also check for hip dysplasia and perform some simple neurologic tests. Then I turn the pillow around with baby in it, check their neck and glance at the shape of their head, continue to talk to baby and eventually look at you and say, “okay, baby is done”. Which is typically met with a “oh really? That was it?”. Yup, it’s that simple. I’ll let you know what I found and treated and how what I found could be affecting your baby. What I was doing while chatting was gently feeling for restrictions in the baby’s joints, which takes a lot of practice to develop the sensitivity required to be able to feel the mild amount of decreased movement in a joint. I apply pressure to one of the bones of the joint, wait for movement to be restored and move on. Sometimes, I will give baby a gentle massage along some of the muscles that can become tight when the joint no longer functions properly.
Babies Have Complaints? How?
What could babies (or parents) complain about? They are brand new, so how could they even have any issues? The most obvious answer to that is labour. It’s definitely not a gentle process for baby. They get squished! And if there is assistance, like forceps, vacuum or pulling, trauma can happen to baby’s body. Plus, they may have been very squished inside mom, perhaps lying in a curved shape during development. And sometimes with parents, they have tendencies or patterns that can cause patterns in baby. What I mean is when holding baby the same way (like always needing to have your dominant hand free) can cause pressure on the same parts of their malleable spine or cause tightness in the same muscles. A very common and obvious way to see this is when babies develop a bald or flat spot on the backside of their head or have a tendency to turn their head one way (sometimes referred to as torticollis). This can also subtly present as a breastfeeding issue when it is easier for baby to feed on one breast versus the other side.
So what complaints do parents and babies present with? Well there are actually quite a few so I’ll start with the more musculoskeletal complaints, the ones you might be more likely to associate with chiropractic care. We’ve addressed one already, head turning preference or torticollis, which can result in head shape or latching issues. Both of these are associated with a restriction in the upper cervical spine that prevents baby from being able to turn their head equally both directions, which then results in tightening of muscles from always looking one way. Babies don’t understand that they need to stretch or turn their head in both directions, so they just give into the more comfortable position, perpetuating the issue. They stay looking one way, which causes pressure on the soft cranial bones resulting in a flat spot or changes to the shape of baby’s head. Because they are stuck looking one direction, it can prevent them from getting their head in the right position for breastfeeding. Breastfeeding, or baby’s latch, can be affected by dysfunction in the jaw joint (TMJ) as well. Some other examples would be issues with motor milestones or imbalances from one side of the body compared to the other. That would look like rolling one way or not rolling at all, sitting or lying in a c-curve position, issues with sitting or supporting themselves, not crawling or walking (compensations like bum scuttling is a sign of dysfunction!), or keeping one limb tucked in or straight and stiff.
Let’s talk about the other stuff, which is basically anything that could be related to a spinal joint, or intervertebral foramen, affecting the nerve that passes through it. The important thing to remember is that the nervous system controls body function. The nerves communicate information from what we call effectors (like organs) to the brain, the brain decides what to do with that information and then communicates a command through the nerves to that organ or effector. The nervous system travels through the spinal column, a quick protected passageway from the central nervous system or control center to the numerous effector sites (muscles, digestive tract, kidneys, etc). The sometimes tricky part is that the nerves travel from the spinal column out of small holes called intervertebral foramen, which are made out of two vertebrae, on one side forming a small joint (facet joint) and the intervertebral disc on the other side. As much as this joint is absolutely necessary to allow for movements in the spine, we can run into an issue where the joint no longer functions properly. When a joint doesn’t move properly (can’t move through its normal range of motion), it can cause inflammation and muscle tightness which can both then affect the way that particular nerve functions. Nerves hate inflammation because it is basically little physiological chemicals that stimulate that nerve or cause that nerve to send signals to the central nervous system/control center, which is then basically improper feedback to the brain. The data the brain is receiving is wrong and/or accompanied by the sensation of pain.
Then what does this do to baby? Remember baby is brand new, just starting to develop and experience or feel bodily functions. If bodily functions are over or under stimulated this can cause baby issues or discomfort. Think about the digestive tract alone, under stimulation can cause constipation so the body isn’t working to remove waste from baby’s body. Overstimulation of the digestive tract can cause diarrhea and I bet a lot of discomfort for baby. Here are common complaints I see that are related to nervous system function; discomfort/fussiness, gas, acid reflux/spit up, diarrhea, constipation, sleep issues and colic. I always keep in mind and remind parents that with certain complaints, to also check with their family doctor or pediatrician to get another opinion or option. It’s great to have a few professionals keeping an eye on baby’s development.
When To Start
So, we’ve gone over safety with chiropractic care, what a treatment is like and the many different complaints chiropractic care can help with and how it works. The last thing I would like to touch on is when to take a baby to see a chiropractor. And the answer is simple; right away or sooner rather than later. It is awesome to get a baby checked for a general assessment after the trauma of delivery (and even after cesareans); this will help get on top of any possible issues that might arise as they develop. The other thing would be referring back to the different symptoms baby could present with that I discussed earlier. To sum it up, any sort of discrepancy or asymmetry in movement (limb or whole body), if baby is uncomfortable (crying, sleep issues, digestive or tummy troubles), or you’ve tried everything else for a complaint with little to no success. It’s also a wonderful way to help get baby set up for all the developmental milestones to come. I have treated a baby as young as two days old! No the baby didn’t have any complaints at the time but mom was coming in to get treated for her own issues and wanted to get baby checked while already in my office. It was quite a delight to treat such a tiny individual that had just entered the world.
My Final Thoughts
If you are telling yourself you need research or proof, head over to the ICP website (icpa4kids.org), they have a ton of research articles on a variety of different kid and baby related topics. My background is in science, so I totally understand needing more than just words from someone’s mouth as proof to give something a try.
It is very special for me to treat newborns and babies. I get the honour of helping baby through their first major developmental milestones, and see them grow, change and become a unique individual. I also get to help parents feel more at ease and help them through the uncertainty of parenting.
Dr. Kelly Mortimer is a Partner of ReDefine Maternal & Family Support. Her services can be found here.