Osteopathy – hands-on therapy for your child

‘As the twig is bent, so grows the tree’ ~ William Garner Sutherland (1873 – 1954) founder of cranial osteopathy

Osteopathic philosophy is based on the idea that the body works best when it moves as nature intended.


Birthing is physically demanding for the baby due to structural adaptive changes that take place. These structural changes are usually self-correcting soon after birth, but not always, leaving behind varying degrees of potentially problematic restrictions.

During birth the bones of the skull overlap and a significant amount of force goes though the baby’s neck, potentially irritating the nerves in the upper neck. These nerves interconnect with digestive function as well as muscles and joints of the head and neck, potentially contributing to issues such as colic or constipation, headaches and neck pain. Limited neck movement in a baby can lead to a many other issues, including feeding problems and flat spots on the head. Pressure on the forming skull can also lead to trouble sleeping, irritability and recurrent ear infections.

As children grow, other problems may become apparent due to earlier stresses and strains and the rough and tumble of childhood. The rapid growth spurt of puberty, the effects of sports activities, hunching over computers or carrying school bags, can also place extra demands on a child’s body; which if left untreated may lead to pain and functional difficulties later in life.


For these reasons, a visit to a paediatric osteopath is worth considering after birth or later. Health is the most important thing that we wish for children.

Osteopaths are trained to assess and treat musculoskeletal stress and strain in the body.  Osteopathic training involves a four to five year Bachelor of Science Honours degree with extensive clinical training in anatomy, physiology, orthopaedics, neurology, biomechanics and clinical methods from the outset. Paediatric osteopathic training is usually undertaken at a post-graduate level and takes two years to complete at the Osteopathic Centre for Children (OCC) in London. Osteopaths are also committed continuing professional development. The term paediatric indicates the osteopath’s specialised knowledge and experience in treating infants and children.


When your baby or child sees the osteopath, the first process is getting acquainted with the child. The osteopath may show them an interesting toy, or ask the parent to read him/her book.

There are clinical processes that all osteopaths follow, regardless of their clinical focus, before they provide treatment. The osteopath will take a thorough health history and perform an examination that includes observation, a gentle structural examination with skilled palpation to assess the whole body (not just the head), to determine whether there may be a physical component to your child’s current symptoms. Then your osteopath will discuss a proposed treatment plan.


Treatment is undertaken with the patient lying on their back, or sitting if the child is more settled in that position, while the osteopath gently palpates (touches) relevant areas of the body such as the head, back, sacrum (base of the spine) and any sites of pain or dysfunction. In the process of examination, osteopaths will run their fingers over the joints between the bones in the head to find out whether there is any irregularity of motion or shape or imbalance in the structure of the bones of the head.

Although the skull appears to be stiff and non-pliable, it is a puzzle of separate bones. The border of each piece of bone forms an elongated joint known as a suture. These sutures allow for a minimal amount of physiological motion to occur between the different skull bones. The skull is made up of some twenty-six bones. At birth, some of those bones are in several parts. The potential for compression in one or more area is likely to be increased if there was compression in the mother’s pelvis on the baby’s head during birth. Compression or restriction of normal motion may lead to a variety of problems and can contribute to headaches, depression, stomach and intestinal problems and many other symptoms.

A paediatric osteopath’s hands are feeling, monitoring hands. They are not pushing things around. They are assessing joint mobility, tension in muscles/fascia, detecting changes in the motion of cranial bones and the general movement of the cranial membranes.

Cranial osteopathy

Paediatric osteopaths use specific treatment techniques that include cranial osteopathy. Cranial osteopaths apply gentle pressure to encourage the normal physiological motion of the cranial bones, cranial membranes and various parts of the body – not necessarily the head – to release restrictions and distortions, which are causing disturbances. This aims to help release tension and normalise mobility so symptoms improve. Relieving strains in the body will also allow things to function normally. It’s all about allowing the body systems to co-ordinate and work together.

During treatment the osteopath is guided by the tension and degree of mobility they can palpate within the underlying anatomy. They are then able to support the re-balancing or release of areas of dysfunction. The body has an amazing ability to heal itself and maintain its own physiology in a state of health and uses the re-balancing process during osteopathic treatment to re-establish healthy physiology.

‘When you have adjusted the physical to its normal demands. Nature supplies the remainder.’ ~

Dr Andrew Taylor Still. Founder of Osteopathy

Cranial osteopathic treatment is dependent on the osteopath’s sense of palpation, a skill developed with detailed training, patience and experience. Osteopaths use a wide range of gentle hands on techniques and treatment varies between patients. It is a gentle approach to the treatment of a wide variety of conditions, and may be used in people of all ages and constitutions.

Cranial Osteopathy is a very gentle osteopathic technique. This makes it especially suitable and safe to use on infants and young children. All other ages can also be treated using this technique.


It is necessary to understand osteopathy in general. It is also important to understand what osteopathy is not: it is not physical therapy, massage, chiropractic, or craniosacral therapy. It is a unique form of total and complete medical care.

Further reading

  1. Oleski SL, Smith GH, et al. Radiographic evidence of cranial bone mobility. Cranio: The Jornal of Craniomandibular Practice. January 2002;20(1):34-8. Available from:http://www.icnr.com/articles/radiographic-evidence-of-cranial-bone-mobility.html
  2. Pritchard JJ, Scott JH, et al. The structure and development of cranial and facial sutures. J Anat. 1956;(90):73-86. [http://www.osteodoc.com/researchBONE.htm.
  3. Ueno T, Ballard RE, et al. Cranial diameter pulsation measured by non-invasive ultrasound decrease with tilt. Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine. 2003;74(8):882-85. [http://www.osteodoc.com/researchBONE.htm.

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