Learning difficulties may prevent a child realising their full potential. Osteopathy recognises that each child is an individual with their own unique learning path. However, there may be certain common features, with links to unresolved strains from the birth process.
Birth history Birth is arguably the most stressful event of a child’s life. Even a relatively straightforward birth imposes enormous stresses on the baby, in particular on the head. This can have implications for the subsequent development of the brain and body. After birth, there is still much growth and development yet to occur in the brain, and this can be delayed or impaired by restriction within the skull. For example, the area of the skull behind the ear and the subsequent growth and development of the temporal lobe of the brain underlying this may be compromised. This is the region that deals with language and word recognition. Another example is recent medical research which shows that many children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have delayed growth of the frontal area of the brain. (1) , and smaller brains on average than children without ADHD. (3). The cause of this is still unknown.
Early diagnosis Physical stresses respond more readily to treatment when the child is very young. Osteopaths feel that early treatment to ease birth stresses to the head and body can help remove physical restrictions to the growth and development of the brain. It is therefore important to be able to recognise characteristic early signs of a problem in the health, development and behaviour of a child as early as possible.
Effects of physical strain in a child- indications of retained birth stresses There are usually indications in a child’s history of retained birth stresses, which can contribute to learning difficulties: As a baby Babies with retained birth moulding display a number of common symptoms as a result of their discomfort:
Excessive crying, or an irritable baby who prefers being carried and needs to be rocked to sleep.
Feeding problems: a slow feeder with a weak sucking action, or a voracious feeder who constantly needed to suck. The baby often has a preferred feeding position. Colic and excessive wind.
Disturbed sleep patterns, often a very light sleeper and waking frequently.
As a toddler
Mobility and play: The child may sit, crawl and walk early, seeking movement to relieve physical discomfort. The child may not become engrossed in play for any length of time, preferring to be on the move. This may contribute to poor concentration later on. Sleep patterns often remain disturbed. They may be a light sleeper, often finding it difficult to drop off to sleep at night.
Behaviour is often at the difficult end of ‘normal’ toddler behaviour spectrum!
Teething may be particularly uncomfortable as the already stressed bony structure of the face resists the rapid changes necessary in the eruption of teeth.
Head banging or pulling at the head or hair is often an indicator of stresses within the head, and not simply a sign of frustration.
Childhood A child who is physically uncomfortable may not complain of aches and pains. The stresses have probably been present since birth, and have become ‘normal’ for that child. They may be affected at a subtle level and display any or all of the following characteristics:
Behaviour may be volatile, in the same way that anyone who is feeling tense may overreact emotionally.
Illnesses. The child often has a depleted immune system and succumbs to many infections. Learning can be detrimentally affected by both a child feeling unwell and increased time lost from school. Retained birth moulding in the head restricts the development of the nasal sinuses and the ears. Such children are vulnerable to chronic ear infections and glue ear, with associated loss of hearing that can delay speech development and interfere with classroom learning. They are often habitual mouth breathers.
Physical signs. There may be asymmetries in the child’s posture, such as holding the head on one side, or one shoulder being higher than the other. It may be easier for the child to turn to one side than the other. This has implications on the best seating position within the classroom, to facilitate activities such as watching the teacher, copying from the blackboard etc.
Physical discomforts. The child may complain of headaches, growing pains, stomach aches or other physical aches and pains. Clumsiness, poor balance. The child may fall a lot, often seeming to bump the same part of their body (such as the head!).
Handwriting is laborious and often untidy.
Fatigue. It is noticeable how similar these signs are to many of those classically associated with learning difficulties.
Gradual recognition of learning difficulties Learning difficulties do not suddenly happen. Usually there are indications that a problem may be present from birth onwards. Early on the child may be able to overcome these difficulties, and seems to be reaching milestones. However, as demands are placed on him at school, it may become increasingly difficult for him to keep up with his peers. Eventually he falls behind, and a ‘learning difficulty’ is identified.
Other factors There are other factors that can cause or aggravate learning difficulties, including impaired hearing or eyesight, and retained primitive reflexes.
How to help a child with learning difficulties
An osteopathic assessment of the child can be useful to ensure that there is no undue strain in the body that is contributing to or aggravating the learning problem.
A visual assessment is also helpful to identify any visual problems. Specialists in this field are Developmental Optometrists, who not only assess the ability of the eye to focus, but also tracking of the eyes and the ability of the brain to interpret visual information.
A hearing test is recommended where there has been a history of glue ear, or other reasons to suspect hearing loss.
Neurodevelopmental therapy may be recommended where there are retained primitive reflexes, to help the development of co-ordination.
Diet is also important, as food allergies and intolerances can impair learning and concentration.
Specialised teaching. None of the above is a substitute for specialised teaching, which is essential, as is input from an Educational Psychologist. Ideally, therapists and teachers should work together to find the best way of helping each child.
Your Doctors Seeing your GP for a referral to a paediatrician is an essential step.
Your Council Your Council may offer help through a Learning Difficulties team.
Special needs Many of the points above regarding children with learning difficulties also apply to children with special needs.
In cerebral palsy, for example, there may have been a traumatic event which has caused the condition. As with any child, osteopathy aims to help the body’s self-correcting mechanisms release any retained compressions to the head and body caused by a difficult birth or other trauma. So while it is not possible to cure the underlying condition, improvements may be seen in a number of areas from physical comfort to co-ordination and neurological development.
In Down’s Syndrome there are changes in the structure of the skull affecting breathing. This paper by osteopath Nicholas Handoll DO, raises the hypothesis that postnatal hypoxia causes much of the handicap of Down’s syndrome and that osteopathic treatment may help to relieve birth compressions through the face and nasal passages. (2) If you are not sure whether a problem is suitable for osteopathic treatment, please call your local cranial osteopath from our members list through our page entitled find a cranial osteopath who will be happy to discuss your needs.