Babies scream. This is one of the first things you learn as a new parent (along with sleep matters, and labour hurts). What is more of a mystery is why. Is it hungry? Too tired? Overstimulated? Too hot, too cold? Angry? Isn’t it amazing they can be so small and yet make so much noise?
When the list — and the patience — runs out and the baby is still screaming, a wellmeaning person will suggest that you take your baby to a cranial osteopath. It’s the latest craze in alternative medicine, and believers are evangelical about its benefits. Of course it’s a luxury — a relatively expensive one — but unlike oysters, or a new pair of Jimmy Choos, if it works, if it stops your baby screaming, it’s worth every penny.
‘One of my twins had been squashed by the other in the womb so she always lay in a foetal position. The cranial osteopath worked on her spine and her head and she stretched out like a little cat.’ ‘I took my two-month-old to a cranial osteopath and his colic was gone in 48 hours.’ ‘My son was cross-eyed and after a session with a cranial osteopath it straightened out.’ ‘The back of my little one’s head was totally flat and after six sessions it was perfectly shaped.’ ‘My cleaner’s little boy was covered with eczema, and she cured it.’ I heard all these stories and more. I heard that cranial osteopathy was a gentle treatment, especially good for babies who had suffered a traumatic birth. I heard so much that, having not much else to do apart from babycare and coffee mornings with fellow shellshocked new mothers, I booked my daughter (delivered by forceps, ventouse and then forceps again — she emerged looking like Sid Vicious after a fight with several pogo-ing punks and a guitar) to visit a cranial osteopath in Notting Hill.
Sleep deprivation and the natural protective instinct towards your child make for a potent combination, and I felt bizarrely worried about the treatment. I asked my GP about it. ‘There’s no medical evidence that it works,’ she replied. I asked other friends; any new mother I ran into in the park. ‘She seems quieter since the treatment, but I have no idea if that was the cause or not,’ said one about her three-month-old. This became something I pondered neurotically: how will I know if cranial osteopathy is the cause of any change in my baby’s behaviour? Babies can’t talk. Another friend reported that a cranial osteopath had told her, ‘your baby may show some improvement, or she may get worse, or there might be no change at all’ — a statement that made me eye-narrowingly suspicious.
And then, in quiet moments, I’d wonder why I was taking her at all. There’s nothing wrong with her; she’s a cherub; a model baby. But faced with a screaming ball of flesh at four o’clock in the morning, I’d count the hours until the appointment.
I even did some research. Cranial osteopathy was developed by Dr William Garner Sutherland (1873-1954); as a student osteopath, he became fascinated by a disarticulated skull, noting that the temporal bones — located underneath the ears — were ‘bevelled, like the gills of a fish’. Did they, then, move? Sutherland thought that they did, and used a modified helmet to practise experiments on himself, pressing his helmetclad head between two surfaces to restrict the movement of particular cranial bones. There are records — apparently kept by his wife — of the symptoms he experienced with each constriction: migraines, co-ordination problems, mood changes, personality changes. He even reported going blind for two days.
Sutherland eventually theorised that the body has a cranio-sacral system that operates between the cranium and the sacrum, and along the spine in between. He believed this system is in constant rhythmic motion — calling it the ‘primary respiratory mechanism’ or ‘Breath of Life’ — and that dysfunctions within it compromise the whole body. Thus practitioners feel for disruptions in this subtle cranial rhythm, and with gentle manipulation of the back and head they try to correct such impairments. These theories, unsurprisingly enough, were not accepted by the medical establishment: Sutherland was labelled a quack. It took more than four decades for his work to gain any kind of recognition.
So it was with some trepidation that I arrived at Iona’s clinic. I found a charming, smiley — and beautiful — Brazilian woman with an adorable way with babies. Studying for a PhD in cranial osteopathy, Iona previously worked at St John and St Elizabeth’s, the upmarket private hospital in St John’s Wood where cranial osteopathy is automatically offered to newborns and their (sometimes celebrity) mothers. Her patients, she says, range between desperate parents of screeching offspring to those who like to have a check-up soon after the birth — for their baby, and sometimes for themselves.
I come, with my 14-week-old baby, in search of proof; and while this is disconcerting for Iona — I doubt many other patients ask for studies, research — she rises to the challenge. ‘I don’t want you to leave thinking this is wishy-washy,’ she tells me, pulling huge tomes from her bookshelf and showing me 3-D diagrams of membranes in the brain. The terminology, however, is too much for my baby-addled head and instead I watch her work. Iona puts a hand underneath the lower part of the baby’s back, feeling — I suppose — the pulsations in her sacrum. The baby coos and smiles and Iona does the same back to her: it is one big baby love-fest round here. As Iona lays her hands on the baby’s skull, the baby yells. Not screaming yelling, more bored or irritated yelling: it’s the kind of noise she makes when in her car seat and travelling less than 40 miles an hour (the kind of noise that makes me desperate to hit the accelerator even if the speed limit is 30).
We leave — me and my baby who has a gurgling smile and a now-full nappy — with the instructions that ‘she may be unsettled for a couple of days’. And yes, the following day she does more bellowing than usual on her playmat. Then, a few days later, I am in the car with the baby beside me. And, rather than being asleep or screaming (the two usual default positions in the car seat), she is playing — extra-specially cutely — with a small knitted donkey. She is calm and quiet. This has never happened before.
While Iona is on her annual trip to Brazil, I go to the Osteopathic Centre for Children in Clerkenwell, a much-recommended charity that provides cranial osteopathy (there is one in Manchester too). Practitioners work one-on-one on children, babies and their mothers in an openplan clinic, supervised by a consultant who roams the room. I point out my daughter’s flat head — a condition known as positional or (more alarmingly) deformational plagiocephaly — which is sometimes treated by the wearing of a helmet, in some cases for 23 hours a day; Sutherland would be in there like a shot. My daughter is examined, the osteopath feeling the baby’s head like some kind of crystal ball as she looks heavenwards; an image of the Virgin Mary on her assumption. The diagnosis is that it is not a major issue considering the baby’s advanced (natch) development. They suggest more treatment and the experience has been so agreeable I agree with alacrity.
Cranial osteopathy is also recommended to realign new mothers’ bodies after birth, and I — rather eagerly now — submit myself to the experiment. Lying on my back the osteopath puts her hands under me to treat my sacrum, pelvis, spine; then she presses points on my skull. The pressure is less than a massage, yet when the treatment is finished it feels more thorough; more internal. That night I have the best sleep I’ve had since the birth — and as the baby doesn’t wake until 7.30, I presume she does too.
After this session, I have tea with a scientist friend. I say I’m doing a piece on cranial osteopathy, and he says, ‘I don’t think there are any peer-reviewed papers on that.’ I nod, agree this is suspicious. On my way home on the train, the baby plays in her buggy: watches her hands, fascinated as she rotates them at the wrists as if manipulating a particularly small door handle (learning how to use your body must be like learning how to operate a fork-lift truck, I think). And it occurs to me that even if there aren’t any peer-reviewed papers, I don’t mind at all. Who needs proof when life is as blissful as this?