CRANIO-SACRAL ARTICLE : pregnancy and babies

Cranio-Sacral Therapy is an exceptionally gentle yet extremely powerful form of treatment, increasingly known for its comprehensive range of therapeutic effects and its ability to align the skull and spine, balancing the autonomic functioning of the nervous system. Treatment during pregnancy to prepare the mother for birth and treatment of all newborns is advised for optimal health.
The Cranio-Sacral system consists of the membranes which surround the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord); the bones of the cranium (skull) and sacrum (tailbone) which attach to these membranes; the connective tissue which radiates out from the membranes to all parts of the body (enveloping every nerve) and the cerebrospinal fluid within and surrounding the brain and spinal cord. In a healthy nervous system all these structures pulsate in a rhythmical, balanced and symmetrical motion we call the Cranio-sacral rhythm.

During Cranio-Sacral treatments the practitioner, through gentle hand contacts, is able to feel compressions and asymmetrical pulls of the cranial plates and underlying membrane system as well as the movement of the cerebrospinal fluid. Our nervous systems respond to a stressful and dysfunctional environment (whether physical or emotional distress) by tightening the dural membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Areas of restriction within the cranium and throughout the spine may impede proper nerve innervation to areas of the body. Compression patterns of the fascia connective tissue surrounding different organs, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and body tissues will also affect their ability to function optimally. Once these restrictive patterns ease and release during treatment, the nervous system becomes balanced and the client will enjoy greater well-being on all levels.


During pregnancy the physical health and emotional well-being of the mother is essential for the neurological development of the foetus. A healthy nervous system maintains homeostasis by balancing the input from both parts of the autonomic nervous system, namely the ‘’rest/digest’’ (parasympathetic nervous system ) and the ‘’fight/flight’’(sympathetic nervous system). This ensures the body is able to adapt to a range of activities from relaxing, sleeping and eating to walking, running and being excited.

The hormones released during pregnancy facilitate the ‘’rest and digest’’ (parasympathetic) nervous system functioning to create a calm environment for the foetus to grow. Parasympathetic activation of the nervous system means the body has increased fuel storage, reduced heart and breathing rate, increased depth of breathing, good salivation and peristalsis. This state encourages the absorption of nutrients, vitamins and minerals with good oxygenation of the placenta to provide the essential building blocks for optimal foetal development.

When the “fight or flight’’ part of the autonomic nervous system has been activated by stress or trauma it triggers the release of adrenaline and cortisol stress hormones. These raised stress hormone levels will result in an increased heart and breathing rate; reduced blood supply to the digestive organs and closing of the digestive sphincters and the burning of fats and glucose stores for energy in the acute stages. If highly stressful circumstances persist such as very long working hours, hectic traffic, a dysfunctional or emotionally abusive relationship, the sympathetic nervous system arousal will cause the fight/flight part of the nervous system to become dominant.

In sympathetic dominance illnesses and symptoms like hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, fast arrhythmias, heart disease, type 1 diabetes, anxiety, panic attacks, hypervigilance and poor sleep can occur because the stress hormones will counteract the effect of the ‘’rest and digest’’ hormones and create imbalance. It is especially important throughout the pregnancy and labour for the mother to be relaxed as much as possible.

Research shows that the primary caregiver helps to modulate the child’s levels of arousal in order to facilitate self-regulation of behavioural rhythms, and also of physiological rhythms such as autonomic, neurochemical, and hormonal functions. [1.] Maternal exposure to prenatal stress influences birth size and gestational age independent of biomedical risk [2,3,4], and has been found to influence the physiological as well as psychological development postpartum [5]. Interesting studies how that the size of the foetus at birth appears to be influenced by the gestational age and quality [2, 6] of emotional stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy, as well as by her perceived availability of social support [3]. Further research states that many of the interactions that influence the Autonomic Nervous System and the balance between parasympathetic and sympathetic activity occur at an unconscious nonverbal level [7]. These non-verbal modulation interactions include those inherent to parent-infant interactions like holding, gazing, and soothing your infant [1].


The skull of a newborn baby is not a solid bony structure but a delicate membranous balloon with the soft bony and cartilaginous cranial plates floating on it. Intense compression of these cranial plates during natural birth and labour contractions push the cranial plates against each other. The body’s own natural healing abilities usually release these compressed cranial plates after birth. However in cases of severe compression or asymmetrical pulls like in a forceps delivery, ventouse suction assisted birth or otherwise stressful labour the compression or asymmetry of the plates may not release entirely. During a caesarean section birth the sudden changes in pressure from the amniotic fluid to air can cause a generalized contraction of the whole membrane system. These resulting distortions may impede optimal growth, symmetry of the skull and the development of the underlying brain.

Research has shown that it is not only the physical compressive forces that play a huge role in the well-being of the infant but also the levels of stress during birth, separation from the mother post birth, pain in the infant or mother, and the use of medication such as anaesthesia which can affect the newborn or mother’s ability to bond [ 8 ]. Due to the immaturity of a baby’s nervous system they are unable to regulate states of high arousal and therefore have reduced capacity to tolerate high stress levels. It has been shown that our highest levels of adrenaline in our lifetime occur during our birth. This adrenaline is vital to initiate the first breath and activation of all the organ systems and an additional feature of the acute phase of the fight/flight response is an increase in immune system activity and natural killer cell activity [9,10 ]. Healthy babies demonstrate rapid returns of cortisol to baseline levels after stress exposure [11 ] whereas research has shown that babies born with mild obstetrical complications display reduced hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responses [ 12 ] and decreased sensitization and habituation to stressors [11 ]. This means these babies are less able to cope with mild stress and could be inconsolably crying or difficult to settle and possibly misdiagnosed as ‘’colic’’ babies. The problem arises when acute stress becomes chronic ( example is a baby who cries inconsolably which also affects the parent-infant interaction) and these prolonged elevations in cortisol levels impair the immune response and inhibit natural killer cell activity, rendering the child more susceptible to infection [ 10] .

Common childhood conditions such as colic, poor sleep, regurgitation, poor feeding, inconsolable screaming and recurrent ear infections result from the cranial compressions, trauma to the central nervous system and imbalances in the autonomic nervous system. Treatment to assist in release and alignment of the Cranio-Sacral system can be done on an infant as young as an hour old due to its gentle nature. We are also able to treat during breastfeeding which we believe encourages the maternal-infant bond and the sucking reflex due to the rhythmical rocking movement of a cranial bone called the vomer in the centre of the hard palate at the roof of the mouth.
For more information please contact Justine on 071 684 9684.


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