Cranial Osteopathy: Can This Treatment Really Calm Babies?

Cranial osteopathy is an alternative treatment used to calm babies, improve their sleep, and solve a variety of health issues. Does it work, and should you consider it for your little one? 

Cranial osteopathy is an alternative treatment that involves gently manipulating the bones and connective tissues of the brain and cranium. These movements create a balanced symmetry, which leads to improved overall health.

Pippa Middleton shared in October 2019 that her one-year-old son Arthur receives cranial osteopathy. “It’s a popular alternative therapy for newborns, particularly those who have had a traumatic birth, are unsettled, or have trouble sleeping,” she wrote for Waitrose Weekend magazine. “It claims to heal, relax and promote sleep, digestion and body alignment through gentle head and body manipulation.” Pippa adds, however, that there’s little scientific evidence to suppport this treatment.

So what is cranial osteopathy, and should you consider it for your baby? We spoke with two experts for more information.

baby having cranial osteopathy treatment on leaf background
Illustration by Parents Staff; Adobe Stock (1)

What is Cranial Osteopathy?

Cranial osteopathy is a subset of “osteopathy”—a type of alternative medicine that focuses on the “relationship between structure and function,” says Zinaida Pelkey, D.O., an osteopath in New York City. Osteopaths work by gently manipulating bones, fluids and muscle tissues with their hands. They’re fully-licensed physicians in America—although they generally have more holistic approaches than traditional MDs, says Dr. Pelkey. (In the United Kingdom, where Pippa’s son receives her treatment, osteopathy isn’t always done by certified practitioners.)

So what exactly is cranial osteopathy? It’s essentially a hands-on treatment that involves the brain and bones of the cranium. “The brain governs body chemistry. Alterations to that function influence all aspects of health,” explains Dr. Pelkey. A cranial osteopath is trained to diagnose subtle rhythmic motion that’s present in the head and brain, and apply gentle contact in precise locations to create balance. This, in turn, leads to improved wellness throughout the body.

Most cranial osteopaths are Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs), according to Katherine J Scoville, D.O., P.C, an osteopath in White Plains, New York. They have a great understanding of the central nervous system and its interactions in the body.

Osteopaths differ from chiropractors, who aren't required to complete medical school and residency. They also have a different approach to health: chiropractors focus on the spine, while osteopaths treat the “muscles, bones, connective tissue, and joints of the body, according to The Osteopathic Cranial Academy. Osteopathy also isn’t the same as craniosacral therapy; the latter requires no standardized training or certification. In fact, many craniosacral therapists are actually massage therapists, nurses, or physical therapists.

Benefits of Cranial Osteopathy

It’s important to note that there’s no scientific evidence for cranial osteopathy. However, supporters such as Middleton swear by the benefits.

For example, cranial osteopathy can help babies overcome lingering side effects of delivery. “Birth can be a traumatic event, even in a normal vaginal delivery that goes smoothly,” says Dr. Scoville. “The baby can have extension through its neck as it works its way out, and there’s pressure at the base of the skull.” Cranial osteopathy can help relieve this tension in cranial bones and tissues.

What’s more, the treatment can solve feeding issues that may negatively affect growth and nutrition. “In the area where the head meets the neck are nerves that affect feeding, swallowing, and digestion,” says Dr. Pelkey. “These bones in an infant are soft and pliable, and they can be stressed during the birth process.” Licensed DOs, she says, can use gentle manipulation in this area to regulate infant feeding, swallowing, digestion—as well as treat colic.

According to Drs. Pelkey and Scoville, cranial osteopathy can also help with:

Cranial Osteopathy Side Effects

“Cranial osteopathy is generally safe for everybody, and if it’s done by a fully-trained osteopath, we don't see any adverse side effects,” says Dr. Pelkey. You may notice that infants feed and sleep better after treatment, and they may appear more interactive.

There are some instances when a baby shouldn’t receive cranial osteopathy, though. For example, Dr. Scoville wouldn’t treat babies with cerebral hemorrhage, recent skull fractures, bleeding in the brain, tumors, abscesses, or open wounds. Talk to your doctor to determine if treatment is safe for your little one.

When Can Babies Get Cranial Osteopathy?

Babies can technically get cranial osteopathy at any age—in fact, Dr. Pelkey remembers treating apremature baby in the intensive care unit. The benefits usually last long-term as the body adapts to the changes.

The recommended number of treatments will vary for everyone. Sometimes one visit to the cranial osteopath will fix the underlying health issue, while other babies need recurring consultations. Dr. Pelkey also doesn’t hesitate to refer patients to another kind of practitioner “if we think someone needs a surgical intervention or some other kind of management.”

Is Cranial Osteopathy Painful?

Since the movement involved with cranial osteopathy is gentle, it shouldn’t hurt the baby—although there may be mild discomfort. “There’s no fear that we’re going to damage something because we are working with the body's own forces,” says Dr. Pelkey.

A real problem, though, is getting older babies to lie still during the treatment. “From 6 months to about 2.5 years, the last thing kids want to do is lie on their backs and have something done to them,” says Dr. Peley. She usually calms wiggly babies with toys, music, and books. Mothers can also breastfeed their infants during the treatment.

The Bottom Line

As Pippa Middleton notes, there’s a lack of scientific evidence around cranial osteopathy. The benefits are difficult to measure and prove. However, many parents swear by it—and given the lack of negative side effects, it’s a safe treatment option to try.

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