Building Brain Power
Most parents hope their child has good health, success at school and friends. At times, though, these simple desires can seem elusive, writes Barbara Grace.
During a child’s early years, some children don’t progress according to developmental milestones, with delays in learning, socialisation and motor co-ordination limiting their potential. The busy lifestyle of modern families encroaches on the time available to provide good nutrition, the time for play and regular exercise.
Neuroplasticity research shows that a child’s environment shapes brain development, with all sensory perception carried via the nervous system to the spinal cord, where it is integrated into the brain’s cortical map. Helping a child achieve full potential begins early with positive environmental experiences.
‘We are sensory organisms and we develop through our sensory experiences,’ says Dr Genevieve Keating, a Melbourne pediatric chiropractor whose research into ‘how we are who we are’ underpins her work with young children. ‘The richness of our environment wires the brain and affects motor and cognitive development,’ she says.
A baby’s brain, the most immature organ at birth, continues developing as higher brain centres integrate primitive (startle, suckle) reflexes and establish postural reflexes (for movement, balance, co-ordination) as a child grows.
‘We know that failure to integrate primitive reflexes in the normal developmental windows is a reliable predictor for further interruption to development,’ says Dr Keating.
With nearly 20 percent of children starting school with some form of developmental delay, understanding the link between motor skills and cognitive function has never been more important.
‘I commonly see children in Grade 2,’ says Genevieve Keating. ‘Parents bring their child, usually knowing that something’s not quite right, but often are told by their child’s prep teacher that their son or daughterwill ‘catch up in Grade 1’ – only to discover in Grade 2 that their child needs intervention with Reading Recovery.’
Being able to concentrate, follow instructions, focus attention, balance correctly and maintain hand-eye co-ordination (including smoothness of eye tracking, which is an important skill required for reading) are good indicators of a child’s neurological function.
Keating assesses a child’s developmental and neurological function by checking postural alignment, balance and developmental reflexes in her office. She uses exercises such as laying the child superman-like over a fit-ball to evaluate extension; and others for balance and cross co-ordination reflexes.
‘A child’s poor motor skill development and co-ordination can come from poor neck alignment as a result of the birth process,” says Keating, explaining the importance of monitoring a child’s early developmental milestones.
‘Sometimes babies won’t crawl, but move along on their bottom, an action commonly known as ‘butt scooting’ or ‘bottom shuffling’. This behaviour can indicate a developmental delay. When a child puts his or her hand on the floor to assist butt-scooting, then the child is developing asymmetry in their nervous system,’ says Keating.
Strong sensory and motor pathways enhance clarity of thinking, smoothness of thought and social skills. If a child has poor social development, Keating believes that often it indicates the child hasn’t yet developed maturity in their neural pathways.
‘Children with poor social development often are unable to read other people well, they’re too ‘in your face’, or they’ll be uncoordinated and bump into other children and display inappropriate reactions.’
Some babies develop a ‘flat head’ (clinically known as plagiocephaly), often associated with the ‘back to sleep’ SIDS campaign. While most parents are told their baby will ‘grow out of it’, a recent study by Miller and Claren, published in the prestigious journal Pediatrics, showed that 39.7 per cent of babies with this condition later required an individual education plan involving speech education, physical therapy, occupational therapy or special education services.
Many medical practitioners, including GPs and pediatricians, assume a ‘watch and wait’ procedure when parents express concern over their child’s development, which without intervention can delay a child’s development by up to a year and seriously impact on ability to learn.
Dr Sharon Pedersen-Jones, a chiropractor on the Bellarine Peninsula agrees. ‘Once we assess a child and begin adjustments, parents often report an improvement to their child’s literacy skills and attention span as pressure is released from nerves in the neck. This release allows for optimal brain communication, which can improve a child’s concentration and overall energy levels.‘
‘I look at a child’s health from a holistic perspective, which includes good nutrition, adequate water intake and regular exercise as well as routine spinal care,’ says Dr Pedersen-Jones. ‘If the whole family assesses their attitudes towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle, they’ll establish good habits during their child’s early years and into teenage years while the brain is still developing.’
Parents seeking chiropractic assistance often have exhausted more traditional medical avenues without resolving worrying issues that including poor co-ordination, pigeon-toeing, newborns with wry-necks (an abnormal contraction of the neck muscles causing a tilting and twisting of the neck and an unnatural position of the head often inhibiting the mother breastfeeding from both sides), repeated ear infections or learning difficulties.
‘Recently a mother brought in her two-month old baby suffering froma wry-neck after the medical profession advised surgery to relieve the pain. After only a couple of adjustments, the baby had normal neck movement, proper use of the arm and was generally more settled,’ said Dr Pedersen-Jones describing the importance of parents researching the best option available to resolve concerns with their child.
Pedersen-Jones believes that a sedentary lifestyle - sitting around with handheld games, time in front of a computer, watching television from a young age and carrying heavy school bags can cause more damage than most playground falls. Add in take-away meals with quickly prepared lunches and little fresh water in a child’s diet and the result is a child with low energy levels and who is more prone to illness.
‘The dental profession has done a great job teaching the importance of caring for our teeth. If teeth break down, you can buy new ones – they’re expensive but replaceable. Once your spine deteriorates, however, you’re stuck with it,” says Pedersen-Jones.’ Your nervous system is a reflection of your spinal health. If it’s not looked after from infancy throughout your life then it’s going to affect your health at some point.’
Petersen also comments that while stumbles and falls are a natural part of childhood, ‘the body’s pain receptors don’t fully mature until 16 years of age, meaning the body will adapt if there’s been a shift in a bone’s position.
‘This is why spinal problems often go unnoticed in children. Pain often presents when a child is older, hosting problems developed much earlier in their lives.’
In the community, a general misunderstanding of a chiropractor’s role still exists with many maintaining a belief they are only good for ‘bad backs’. Fortunately, the profession has matured beyond this role with practitioners, such as Dr Genevieve Keating, specialising in paediatric chiropractic care for children. Keating currently teaches postgraduate paediatric seminars for Inspiral and is Assistant Professor of the Carrick Institute for Graduate Studies, teaching the Chiropractic Neurology programme in Australia.
With regulation mandatory, professional chiropractors work with a range of individuals providing either symptom relief, or long-term wellness care like Dr Sharon Pedersen-Jones, with a focus on providing young children with the opportunity to optimise their learning and live a healthy balanced life.
Tips for parents:
• Encourage ‘tummy time’ which develops the baby’s posterior neck muscles and fires strong neurological feedback into the brain stem (needed to stimulate normal development). Nappy change time can be a useful time - try using a rattle or mum’s face for visual stimulus to encourage head lifting.
• Another helpful exercise is forward and back rocking while on the tummy. This can be done lying baby on the tummy in the pram and rocking, or holding baby firmly on a large exercise ball and rocking. This movement is a great way to stimulate the vestibular system, which is essential for good balance and co-ordination.
• Develop cross co-ordination movements with activities such as marching while lying down (with straight arms and legs), swimming (imitate the crawling movement in the water), provide clear areas on carpet to encourage crawling, massage both feet and hands for a few minutes several times a day. For older children try: drumming (use two-handed patterns), playing at the park (swinging and spinning), playing games while crawling eg catching each other.