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Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Rolfing Babies (Don't!)

My consternation was considerable yesterday when an attendee at an infant mental health meeting announced that he did Rolfing with babies. This fellow was apparently responsible for putting on the registration table a batch of free “women’s journal” publications that advertised his services. I confess that I rudely dropped my pen on the table and buried my face in my hands when I heard his announcement (sweetened by an offer to provide computers for at-risk families).

If you are old enough to remember Rolfing, you know that it was a great New Age craze in the later ‘60s and early ‘70s. Also called “structural integration”, it is a type of deep tissue massage that is claimed to release stress and alter bad postural patterns that are causing trouble. A current website,  states that this release is uncomfortable: “brief periods of discomfort are associated with the ‘letting go’ of chronic stresses and unhealthy postural patterns”. Adults who have experienced the treatments have described it rather differently, more along the lines of “hurts like hell”. When Rolfing is done to babies, practitioners state that the babies’ crying or pooping in response to the treatment are indications of “release” of stress (
Crying and defecation at an unusual time are indications that stress is being created in infants (as well as in adults), not that it is “released”. These are both indications of infant distress, whether because of pain or (in older infants) because of fear.

The long-rejected idea of catharsis is one of the concepts behind the claims made by Rolfing practitioners. Catharsis is a posited release of negative emotion through physical expression of distress. Many alternative therapies depend on this idea and deliberately cause pain or fear in order to cause expression through crying or physical responses, and these reactions are in turn argued to get rid of “stored” effects of earlier pain or fear. (So what happens to the new pain or fear that must in turn be stored in some way? Sorry, the argument does not seem to include this bit.) But all the evidence shows that expressing pain or fear or anger actually increases these emotions rather than diminishing them. The idea of catharsis was an interesting one for the Greek dramatists who felt that showing pity and terror on stage could diminish their later presence in the audience, but this theory of theater has not been shown to do anything but harm when part of a therapeutic measure.
Rolfing is far from the only alternative therapy to make use of the idea that being hurt is good for infants and children. Holding therapists (in the past, I hope) have required frightened children to shout “I want to kill my mother!” over and over, in order to get rid of the child’s anger. Craniosacral therapists like William Emerson have taught parents that painful traction on a young infant’s head and neck will “release” the anger and fear he claims are felt by the infant during birth. Emerson has counseled parents not to comfort young crying babies, suggesting that helping them to stop crying simply continues to bottle up the rage that if unreleased will interfere with their developmental progress.

I want to point out that everything we know about early development argues against these views. A developmental task of young infants is to become able to self-regulate emotionally, to calm or to become excited as the circumstances warrant. Abused and neglected babies have trouble developing self-regulation. Babies in good care settings are helped to develop self-regulation as their caregivers offer comfort (or stimulation) and help the babies discover what reduces their stress and discomfort (or what is interesting and gratifying when they are bored). Adults who do not offer help in emotional regulation, but instead cause pain, anger, and fear through Rolfing or similar techniques, are working against the development of the self-regulatory abilities that are such an essential foundation for later emotional and cognitive development.

If you want to see an extreme form of this kind of treatment, and note what impact it must have on the baby, look here: It is a very disturbing glimpse into the outcomes of a mistaken belief system. (What is done in this video is not, of course, the same kind of “baby yoga” as we see in classes where parents work with infants in the course of their own yoga poses.)

Please note that Rolfing and craniosacral therapy are not the same thing as infant massage. Gentle but stimulating infant massage is practiced in many cultures and has become popular in the Western world. If a baby cried hard or defecated during appropriate massage, this would certainly be a message that the massage was not being done correctly. Unfortunately, that message is ignored by Rolfing practitioners who define it as evidence that they are doing things right.

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