Children with anxiety, learning difficulties and other special needs may find craniosacral therapy a supportive modality that helps them — and, by extension, the whole family — feel calmer, better able to manage stress and more capable of self-regulation.
An Alternative Therapy
Craniosacral therapy (CST) is a healing modality developed in the 1970s by osteopath John Upledger. According to iahp.org, a website parents can consult for additional information and to find a practitioner, CST is “a gentle, hands-on method of evaluating and enhancing the functioning of a physiological body system called the craniosacral system, comprised of the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord.”
CST supports balance in the central nervous system, specifically between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) branches, by relieving tension in the system’s soft tissue and fluids.
“When you have a system that’s in stress, it can’t heal or slow down,” explains Suzanne Herbers, a speech, development, craniosacral and manual therapist in McLean, Virginia.
Practitioners like Herbers use light finger pressure (about the weight of a nickel) at selected points on the body to address restrictions in the central nervous system. They may press on the same spot for several minutes until they feel the rhythm of the cerebrospinal fluid regulate and soft tissue settle into a healthy position.
By calming the nervous system and reducing inflammation, CST can promote emotional and behavior regulation and lead to improvements in the vestibular system, proprioception and sensory processing. That’s why CST practitioners often work with children who have special needs, such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities and emotional or behavior issues.
What to Expect During Craniosacral Therapy
Before your child begins CST, you’ll be asked by the practitioner to provide information about your pregnancy, labor and delivery as well as your child’s eating and movement patterns, milestones, food and play preferences and elimination habits. CST treatments generally run $80 to $180 an hour and are not usually covered by insurance unless combined with another reimbursable service such as speech therapy.
During their session, your child will take off their shoes but remain fully clothed, and you’ll be permitted to stay in the room. You may be asked to hold an infant or read to a toddler on your lap as they receive treatment. Young children might bounce on or drape themselves over large therapy balls, while older kids may prefer to sit in a beanbag chair or lie on a massage table.
The frequency of CST is highly individualized. While babies with feeding issues, for example, may need to be seen only once or twice, older children with longstanding concerns may require weekly sessions.
Subsequent treatment also depends on the ease of movement in areas initially stressed or restricted. When the body responds well and maintains good fluid flow, children can go longer between sessions.
Your child’s practitioner will ask you to provide feedback on changes in behavior, play, affect or elimination after each session. Parents often report that their child is calmer and better able to handle upsets with fewer or less severe reactions — less tantrums, fewer, shorter meltdowns, and reduced headaches and discomfort.
Northern Virginia mom Tara McMillan has found that craniosacral work helps her nonverbal 14-year-old son to be more calm, present and communicative. “He now puts my hand on his head, on his occipital bone, to calm himself whenever he’s upset and each night as we get ready for bed,” she says.
This post originally appeared in our February 2020 issue.