by Dan Rindler, Feldenkrais Practitioner, GCFP
If you’ve been told by your pediatrician that your baby’s neck is stiff, or that they are developing a flat spot, you are not alone. Perhaps your baby has been diagnosed with torticollis, a condition in which the body, especially the neck and head, are held in an asymmetrical position. Often flat-head syndrome, or plagiocephaly, is present in babies with torticollis too. Recent studies, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery, show a huge surge in the incidence of torticollis, up from 2% of babies to 16%.
Many parents find their baby is highly resistant to the common treatment prescribed: a routine of stretching and positioning, and orthotic devices for more severe cases. A Feldenkrais-based approach takes a different approach to working with torticollis. The method doesn’t focus on adjusting the head and neck, but rather addresses the whole child in a way that is often more easily accepted by the baby, and therefore, easier for parents to institute at home. At a time when nearly half of all babies have some degree of a flat head by the age of 2-3 months, this approach is more important than ever for parents to learn.
A challenging condition for babies and parents:
In this picture of a baby with torticollis, notice the tilted and rotated position of the baby’s head and neck. She is not able to turn her head as fully to the other direction, which affects the way she uses her eyes. If she lies on her back a lot, it’s very likely she will develop a flat spot on her skull. This flat spot will make it even more challenging to turn her head away from her habitual position. If she is sat up often in a chair such as a Bumbo seat to avoid the flattening of her head, the weight of her head hanging more to one side will likely exacerbate the asymmetry of her spine as well.
Is it Really Only A “Pain in the Neck?”
Most pictures of babies with torticollis show just the head, neck and shoulders. In fact, I had a lot of trouble finding a full body picture for use with this article. While this makes sense as these areas are the parts most obviously affected, it is an incomplete picture of what is actually an asymmetry throughout the body. This focus on the head and neck influences common treatment approaches, which are also frequently incomplete.
A whole-baby view and approach:
Consider for a moment the leaning tower of Pisa. When the tower became structurally unsound in 1990, something had to be done. The engineers tasked with this job could have changed the tower at the top with a wedge to bring it level. You don’t need to be an architect to know that this approach would not work! Without a solid foundation beneath it, the “leveled” top of the tower in this scenario would not be able to hold its position for any length of time before collapsing. What engineers actually did was to change the foundation of the building so that the tower wouldn’t lean to a dangerous degree. If it weren’t the iconic tourist attraction that it is, those engineers would have changed the foundation so that the tower actually stood straight. If we work with a baby’s neck muscles without addressing what’s happening throughout their body, we similarly ameliorate only part of a problematic situation.
Look at the same baby as above, but observe the picture of her whole body. With this more global view, we can notice that her left shoulder tilts down in the same direction that her head tilts and that the left hand reaches near her hip while the right hand can’t reach as far down. The ribs on the baby’s left side are compressed and her right side is long, with (one can imagine) the ribs spread apart. The left side of her pelvis is raised and her left leg is flexed. With such a biased foundation, how could her head and neck do anything but tilt?
Noticing these differences throughout the body are a key to the effectiveness of Feldenkrais Method. The baby may react with tears and cries when her tight neck is stretched, but working with her ribs, her hip, or her leg, would almost definitely feel less invasive to her. When she feels new options for the movement of her “foundation,” she will be all the readier to accept a change in her neck and head. This powerful yet gentle, holistic approach will help her to find new options for posture and movement that will benefit her for life.