Childbirth & what this means for your baby’s spine

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Birth is a beautiful thing. A new life is beginning. A family is growing. But being born isn’t an easy ride down the birth canal. It’s back-breaking work! And this is why.

At the end of pregnancy, when mom can’t get comfortable and is more than ready to “get this baby out,” it might just be that baby is echoing the same sentiment. There’s not a lot of space left to move around, and when baby moves closer to the birth canal, it can spend a few weeks lying with its head or body tilted at an awkward angle. These prolonged and fixed positions can put strain on the joints and affect their function.

Not long after, D-day arrives, and you’d hope things would get a bit easier. But the delivery process requires great amounts of twisting and pulling to get baby out the birth canal, or the uterus via Caesarean section. A substantial amount of force is applied to a baby’s neck during natural vaginal birth. During a C-section this force can be just as great.

What this means is that even if your little one had a smooth delivery and an easy transition into the world, chances are some form of spinal joint dysfunction occurred because of the traction and torsion applied to the head and spine at delivery. Unfortunately, these chances increase in the case of obstetric intervention (induction of labour, delivery by forceps or vacuum extraction).

Now you’re thinking OMG! Is it serious? This… what did you call it? Spinal joint dysfunction?

Allow me to explain.

What is spinal joint dysfunction?

It’s a mouthful but, simply put, joint dysfunction means “faulty motion.” It means that the joint isn’t moving the way it’s supposed to. This can happen in two ways: either there’s too little movement (hypomobility) or there’s too much movement (hypermobility).

The spine can be thought of as a column of joints. These joints, called facet joints, are small cartilage-lined points of contact where each vertebra meets the one above and below it. They enable the spine to bend and twist and also serve as an exit point for the nerves as they travel from the spinal cord to other parts of the body.

“Simply put, spinal joint dysfunction means that one or more of these facet joints of the spine has faulty movement and this may play a role in some of the conditions that make life harder for mom and baby.”

Simply put, spinal joint dysfunction means that one or more of these facet joints of the spine has faulty movement and this may play a role in some of the conditions that make life harder for mom and baby.

What can happen if my baby’s spine has spinal joint dysfunction?

  • It may cause discomfort. Inflammation in a joint can be painful and cause the surrounding muscles to become tight and tender.
  • It may influence the nerves and reflex pathways that affect the functions of certain systems in the body. In the gastrointestinal system, for example, it may result in excessive crying or feeding difficulties.
  • It may mimic or manifest as certain symptoms because of referred pain patterns. Again, let’s use the gastrointestinal system as an example. Symptoms that appear to be coming from the gut may actually be pain coming from a faulty facet joint. In adults, it would be the same as experiencing a headache that is, in fact, pain referred by muscle spasm in the shoulders.

How can I tell if my newborn has possible spinal joint dysfunction?

The following symptoms might serve as clues:

  • Excessive fussiness, irritability and sleep difficulties
  • Screaming fits
  • Prolonged, inconsolable crying
  • Baby pulls its knees up to its chest, arches its back, has tense tummy muscles, and clenched fists.
  • Excessive spitting up and vomiting
  • Constipation, bloating and excessive gas
  • Refusal to latch or a preference for one side when feeding
  • Baby likes to be cradled and cries when you put it down flat.
  • Baby suddenly hates the baby chair or gets restless when you put it down to sleep in its usual position.
  • Baby will only move or turn its neck in one direction.

It’s important to note that an infant’s head should be floppy, so don’t put a stiff, sore neck down to your baby’s ability to hold up its head.

What can I do if I suspect spinal joint dysfunction?

Research studies show that chiropractic treatment can lead to significant improvement in spinal joint dysfunction. Gentle mobilisation techniques help to restore function by correcting faulty joint movement and reducing muscle spasm in the infant’s spine. Have a look at chiropaeds.co.za for an overview of these studies.

“Gentle mobilisation techniques help to restore function by correcting faulty joint movement and reducing muscle spasm in the infant’s spine.”

What can my baby and I expect during a visit to the chiropractor?

It’s pretty similar to visiting any healthcare practitioner, and usually there are three parts to it.

  1. Sit down and chat

The chiropractor will take a comprehensive history that will include questions, among others, about pregnancy, delivery and your baby’s symptoms. It’s also here that the chiropractor will advise you on things you can do to help your baby, give a detailed explanation about what’s going to happen next and answer any questions you may have.

  1. Examination

Chiropractors will do a physical exam to look for things that don’t fall within their scope of practice. If this is the case, your baby will be referred to the appropriate healthcare practitioner. A neurological and musculoskeletal exam comes next. Reflexes are tested to see how your baby’s nervous system is doing. Muscles are examined for general tone and areas of spasm. The joints of both the extremities (arms and legs) and the spine are assessed for movement and symmetry.

  1. Treatment

With mom and dad close by, a gentle mobilisation is applied to areas in the baby’s spine that demonstrate faulty movement and muscle spasm. But – and it’s a big but – the chiropractor will take a very different approach to that of an adult. Just as a medication’s dosage needs to be changed from that of an adult to one that’s safe for a baby, so is mobilisation age specific. The pressure used is the same as the pressure used to check whether a tomato is ripe. However, it may be that your baby has no spinal joint dysfunction and will, in that case, not be mobilised.

Will my baby cry during a chiropractic treatment?

Most infants do, but not from pain. Not to say that there aren’t sensitive areas on their spines, but the mobilisation doesn’t cause pain. Instead, infants cry because something new is happening to them, and they’re being held in a position they’re not used to.

And most importantly, is it safe?

It’s natural for parents to be unsure about the chiropractor. There’s a fair amount of differing opinion out there. But, yes, chiropractic treatment is a safe, gentle, and effective form of therapy for your baby that is also non-invasive and drug-free. And, there are many parents that will attest to its benefits.

However, it should be said that it’s important to feel confident in your chiropractor’s ability to treat your baby. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Another good option would be to see the chiropractor during pregnancy. Not only will it help you with your back pain, but you can get a good feel for them which, in turn, will help you decide whether you’re happy to put your baby’s spine in their hands.

The takeaway?

When parents understand the effects that childbirth can have on a baby’s spine, they begin to understand the importance of having their little one’s spine checked after birth.

This article was written for BabyYumYum by our partner chiropractor, Dr Tony Karpelowsky.

Also read:

What’s all the fuss about gastro?
How you hold your child can be harmful to them