When my daughter was born, she weighed just five pounds. Though she was healthy, breastfeeding was hard. Insurance covered two lactation consultations, but after both appointments we were still struggling.
At eight weeks she still wasn’t latching properly, so I hired a lactation consultant, who offered not just her own expertise but a variety of alternative therapies to support breastfeeding. One of those options was infant craniosacral therapy, or infant CST.
What is infant craniosacral therapy?
Craniosacral therapy, also called craniosacral massage, is an increasingly popular holistic therapy that uses gentle touch to release tension and compression. Therapists who work on the craniosacral system (meninges, bones, and cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord) believe there is a discernible rhythm to the craniosacral system. By monitoring that rhythm, they believe they can identify and release areas of stress or obstruction. Infant CST practitioners say it can help with nursing, colic, torticulis (decreased range of motion due to muscle tightness) fussiness, GI issues, sleep issues, plagiocephaly (a flat spot on the skull), birth injuries, and more.
What does the research say?
Research exploring whether CST is effective for the myriad issues it is purported to address remains scant. However, several studies have concluded its use is safe in infants and children, including a 2019 research review published in the journal “Comtemporary Therapies in Medicine which found CST to be helpful for colic while a 2020 study published in the journal “Clinical Lactation” found it helpful for some breastfeeding issues.
Seattle is a center for naturopathic approaches and CST is a popular holistic treatment referral in the area. Since infants’ skull bones are not yet solidly bound, it is important to note that physicians warn against manipulating the delicate bones that surround a baby’s brain. Providers stress that the pressure applied in CST amounts to about five grams, the weight of a nickel. Several auality studies, including 2016 reserach published in the journal “Contemporary Alternative Medicine” have concluded CST is safe in infants and children.
What providers say
Tina Dos Santos, a Seattle-based birth doula and licensed massage therapist, has practiced infant CST for more than a decade.
“I try to look at the big picture,” she says, “the rhythms of the craniosacral system, the fluid, tissue, and muscles of the craniosacral system, the palate, fascia, speech development, and sometimes the diaphragm. After that, it is up to the baby’s body to make the changes.” She provides parents with follow-up exercises and often works in tandem with a lactation consultant for nursing issues.
What other postnatal providers say
“How craniosacral [therapy] works is kind of a mystery,” says Ginna Wall, RN, MN, ICBLC. “But I’ve observed it in clinical and educational settings, and each time it was amazing. You could see the babies just relax.” Ginna was a pediatric nurse for nearly 40 years and founded the lactation program at UW Medicine in 1986.
Catherine Fenner, IBCLC, a longtime Seattle-based lactation consultant, recommends clients try CST before more invasive interventions such as frenotomy (tongue-tie surgery).
“Sometimes [CST] can relax the muscles enough to reveal a problematic oral tether,” she explains, “but sometimes the muscles relax enough that a frenotomy isn’t needed.” Catherine’s clients have reported their babies are calmer and open their mouths wider for a better latch after a CST session.
What parents say
Natasha Maestas noticed a difference in her six-week-old son, Enzo, after just one session of infant CST. Prior to the session, she and her husband realized that they hadn’t seen Enzo’s tongue outside his mouth at all. “Within two days, he started sticking his tongue out well past his gumline. It was like he discovered a new toy,” she says.
In the first few weeks of his life, Enzo was “tense and tight, uncomfortable unless held or swaddled.” Nursing was painful for Natasha, and it seemed like it was painful for Enzo, too. Although skeptical, she was happy to try infant CST if it meant she could avoid a frenotomy. Two sessions later, her son is “less cranky and nursing well.” Equally important, Natasha herself feels less anxious.
“I’m not sure our journey is over yet, but my own mental health is better. He’s calmer, so I am calmer, too.”
It’s important to point out that other parents say their experience of CST led to no discernible changes or improvements in their baby’s nursing latch, symptoms of colic or other issues for which they were referred to CST.
Practicalities of infant CST
Some insurers have begun offering coverage for certain holistic treatments, such as massage from a licensed practitioner. Infant CST is not yet covered by insurance, and a typical infant CST session in Seattle can cost $150 – $250. Most CST practitioners recommend three to five visits, although it’s possible a baby’s issue will be resolved in one session.
As for me and my tiny baby? We got the help we needed from a variety of skilled and heartfelt birth workers, craniosacral therapy and several lactation appointments, and nursed just fine for the first year of her life.