When Gabriel was 3 weeks old, Kerry was at her wits’ end. He had begun crying uncontrollably: before, after and between feeds. Nothing she could do would calm him. She consulted a paediatrician, who diagnosed colic and prescribed Donnatal and Panado. Neither of these had any noticeable effect. Kerry tried changing Gabriel’s formula, which made a small difference, but, she says, “The really big change came the morning after his first osteopathy treatment.” It was on the advice of her mother in-law that Kerry contacted Dr Guy Ashburner when Gabriel was almost 5 weeks old. Her mother-in-law had been treated by him after breaking her ankle.

She felt he would be able to help Gabriel. “It was like magic,” says Kerry. “I brought him in for a consultation and he was a different baby the next day.” But what is osteopathy and how does it help ease colic in babies?

In a nutshell
Osteopathy is a complementary form of medicine that works alongside conventional medicine. It was founded in the 1870s by Dr Andrew Taylor Still, a medical doctor and surgeon. Osteopathic training is medically based, with a very hands-on approach. It takes biomechanics into account, which is the way the body moves and how the parts work together. Osteopaths understand that the reason for the symptoms in one area of the body can arise from the site of the symptoms in another area. They look at the whole body in a holistic way, rather than just treating the site of the problem.

Not conventional
Dr Ashburner believes that the main differences between the osteopath’s treatment and that of a conventional doctor’s are hands-on therapy versus the prescribing of medicines.

One of the osteopathic philosophies is that “structure governs function”. Simply put, this means that normal structure of the body causes right functioning of the body.

Osteopaths put the body in its right place by eliminating restrictions. Another of their philosophies is that “the body has its own medicine chest”. Everything you need for healing is within the body. This means that osteopathy is a drug-free and non-invasive treatment, as osteopaths don’t prescribe medicines.

A suitable treatment for colic?
Osteopaths are not as quick as conventional doctors to diagnose colic and Dr Ashburner believes it can be misdiagnosed. “There could be many other reasons for your baby to be crying and irritable,” he says. Take the trauma of birth, for example. During contractions and the journey down the birth canal, the soft bones of the skull fold over each other, so that babies are often born with misshapen heads. A few days after birth, the head returns to its normal shape, but in some cases, this doesn’t happen, or the unfolding process is incomplete. This can leave the baby with a headache or general discomfort, which could cause crying. According to some, infantile colic is an abdominal cramping pain.

Dr Ashburner says that there can be various causes for this, like the stress of the birth, the mother’s diet, lactose intolerance, stress during the pregnancy or the way the baby is positioned in the uterus. Another cause could be the irritation of the vagus nerve, which sits at the base of the skull. Irritation of this nerve during the birth can affect the baby’s digestive system. Dr Suzanne Riley, a paediatric osteopathic consultant in Cape Town, says that although infantile colic resolves itself around 3 months, this time frame can be sheer hell for parents. This is where osteopathy can help. While medicine is often prescribed for colicky, crying babies, osteopathy relies on a non-invasive, gentle treatment.

Relief for moms
Kerry recalls Dr Ashburner’s conduct withbGabriel: “He handled him very well and Gabriel was already calmer in the car on the way home. His three feeds that night were weird. He brought up more than usual and didn’t stick to his feeding schedule. By morning, he was feeding peacefully – no screaming, no tummy cramps. An enormous change.” Another patient of Dr Ashburner’s, Emily, would take two hours to finish a 180ml bottle and get very upset at feeding time. Her mom, Ginny, wasn’t sure whether she was crying because she was hungry or had a sore stomach, so she took Emily to see a paediatrician, who prescribed Losec for her reflux. This helped only with Emily’s stomach cramps and didn’t cure the feeding problem. After one session with Dr Ashburner, who applied various gentle techniques on her neck, Emily drank a bottle and a half within 15 minutes. Ginny was also able to stop the Losec and the reflux has not returned. Ginny says, “Dr Ashburner deduced that Emily was lying in a difficult position in my uterus, which probably caused strain in her spine. She would lie with her head to the side and back. She would also lie in this position while she slept after she was born.”

Osteopathy in South Africa
Osteopathy is recognised by the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa, along with various other complementary forms of medicine. According to the Council’s listing of practitioners in the country, there are 49 practising osteopaths in South Africa. In comparison, there are around 3 000 osteopaths in the UK. This year, the profession celebrates its 10th anniversary of regulated practice in the UK, so it’s clear that South Africa has a fair bit of catching up to do. It seems that South Africans aren’t yet aware of osteopathy as a treatment option.

“My patients have generally been to everyone else first before they come to me,” says Dr Ashburner. Kerry’s attitude towards osteopathy is probably fairly typical. “I usually tend to consult an old-fashioned conventional doctor first – someone with a prescription pad and a stethoscope. I am open-minded, though, and was happy to try osteopathy based on my mother-inlaw’s recommendation,” says Kerry. Ginny, too, found out about it through someone who had experienced osteopathy first-hand and she used the internet to find a practice.

Dr Riley’s experience is similar, but she would prefer to see osteopaths and general practitioners working together. “I am a great promoter of ‘inclusive medical care’ and I believe it’s important to ensure that everyone involved in the child’s healthcare works as a team. However, it’s often the case that parents seek the help of an osteopath as a result of sheer desperation. I believe that it would be much better if there was greater recognition of the role that osteopathy can play in the early resolution of colic,” says Dr Riley.

What to expect during a consultation
The osteopath will ensure your baby is comfortable. Dr Ashburner explains he often has to treat while a baby is breast- or bottle-feeding.A medical history will be discussed, led by specific questions about your pregnancy, your lifestyle and habits during the pregnancy, and your emotional state. The osteopath will want to know about the birth- how he was positioned when he came out, how long it took, whether it was a caesarean or natural birth, whether it was assisted (by ventouse or forceps), and whether there was medication involved.

Your baby will then undergo neurological and orthopaedic tests on his reflexes, followed by an osteopathic evaluation, when the doctor feels for restrictions in the body and checks muscle tone and tissue quality. If the doctor detects an emergency situation that wouldn’t be appropriately treated by osteopathy, he’ll refer you to the appropriate conventional medical practitioner. The treatment will then take place, during which he’ll use palpation and gentle osteopathic release techniques.These techniques are very subtle.

The Foundation for Paediatric Osteopathy in the United Kingdom states on its web site: “Babies and children have an innate drive towards normal function, and often need only the slightest easing of tension to release the mechanical stress suffered and improve function. “If you are desperately seeking advice or attention for a fussy or colicky baby, osteopathy may be the right treatment for your baby. However, make sure you the Allied Health Professionals Council of SA. It’s also a good idea to take your baby to your doctor for a check-up before you go in case your baby is ill and needs to be treated.