Manual therapy or bodywork
Touch creates changes in our body in many ways. Gentle, loving touch can be soothing and calming for our babies. Parents do this naturally, stroking and massaging their babies after birth and when snuggling. For babies, this kind of touch is particularly effective when done daily by parents. Parental touch is reassuring and frequent interaction between parents and baby builds on the bonding established during pregnancy and is essential for baby’s development.
When professionals who specialize in the care of infants use specific manual therapy techniques and knowledge of infant anatomy they can facilitate even more improvements. Gentle palpation (touching and examining) of muscles and soft tissue - called fascia- can indicate if a muscle is being overused or is underdeveloped. Gentle palpation of a joint can show if it’s moving too much or too little or in an unexpected way. Manual therapy can help bring about changes that improve baby’s ability to easily do important activities like breathing, eating, moving their head, neck, arms, and legs so that they can fully develop their motor (movement) and cognitive (thinking) abilities. Biomechanics are the way our joints move, which are effected by the health of the ligaments, muscles, and bones. Our joints should have full range of symmetrical movement and good stability. Birth can be challenging for baby as well as the parent. A difficult delivery, long pushing phase, inventions like vacuum or forceps, surgical delivery (c-section), or even induction can affect baby’s joints and muscles. For example, If a baby’s temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is not able to move properly then their mouth may not be able to open as wide as it needs to latch effectively. It may even be painful for baby. Biomechanics affects how the brain interprets what is happening in the body and that in turn can interfere with how the brain communicates with the body. In this example, if baby’s jaw cannot open wide to latch effectively, the brain will try something else, like arching backwards to make more space which eventually causes the muscles on the back to become stronger than is normally needed. As a result, the muscles that open the jaw are unused and become weaker and the muscles on the back are overused which affects other areas of baby's development. This is an example of compensation becoming dysfunction. If, however, the biomechanics of the TMJ are corrected and the jaw and mouth can open normally, development of normal function can be restored to good function and baby will be able to feed as expected using the proper combination of reflexes, muscles, and joints. Referral to manual therapy may be needed for infants experiencing:
head turning preference or tilt to one side
facial, cranial, or jaw asymmetries
abnormal palate shapes
soft tissue restrictions in the mouth, like tongue tie
loose limbs or low tone
asymmetrical movements, one side of the body moving more than another
abnormal reflex expression
cephalohematoma, caput, or other swelling on the head
reflux not resolved with feeding strategies
discomfort when held in certain positions
feeding problems not resolving with IBCLC assistance
Beneficial touch from skilled and knowledgeable manual therapists with extensive pediatric experience is a non-invasive and effective method to guide infants to recovery and normal function. Some of the manual therapists in my area I refer to can be found here.
Image: Jen Holland CPM, LDM