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Acupuncture for Babies: Does this alternative treatment really work?

Michael and Shauna Williams first noticed eczema on their son’s cheeks when he was four weeks old. Over time, it got worse. At 18 months, red crusty patches covered his cheeks, legs, bottom, back, feet, arms, and the backs of his knees. Topical steroid creams weren’t working and the Williams were nervous about continuing to layer these potentially dangerous ointments on their son’s skin. Even so, the Williams cautiously agreed to let a dermatologist try a steroid injection. It was a temporary fix; their son’s rash eventually worsened. The eczema led to infections, hospitalizations, and a lot of frustration.

“He was miserable,” Michael says. “He’d wake up in the morning and he’d clawed himself so badly he had skin hanging off of him. There was blood everywhere.”

Judgmental looks from strangers and comments to “wipe the pizza” off their son’s face didn’t help.

The Williams put their baby on a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. “We threw money at everything that was suggested,” Michael says. One day, a neighbor asked the Williams if they had tried acupuncture. The neighbor worked in an office near the YinOva Center in New York City and had seen firsthand a child with eczema successfully treated there. “At first, I was reluctant. It sounded too hokey,” Michael says. But desperate for a solution, they decided to give it a try.

Acupuncture is the insertion of hair-thin needles into specific points along the body to manipulate the flow of energy, known as Qi. How acupuncture works is a bit of a mystery. “The western scientific explanations are still being debated,” says Kathi Kemper, M.D., author of The Holistic Pediatrician (HaperCollins) and a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Wake Forest School of Medicine. The theory is that Qi can get disrupted through genetic or environmental factors and acupuncture restores the normal flow. “Even when you’re a tiny baby, your body has the ability to heal,” says Jill Blakeway, YinOva’s founder and the licensed acupuncturist who treated the Williams’ son. Acupuncture promotes those healing abilities.

While the words “needles” and “babies” might make a typical parent think of shots and trauma, the Williams weren’t nervous about bringing their son in for acupuncture. “His eczema was so painful. A few little pricks didn’t seem like a big deal,” Michael says. Besides, even though neither Michael nor Shauna had tried acupuncture personally, Michael had read up on it and started asking around. He heard good reports from a friend who used it to manage back pain.

Blakeway began seeing the Williams’ son once a week. Unlike acupuncture treatments on adults, the needles are not left in babies for long periods of time. “With grown ups, I keep the needles in and let them fall asleep on the table,” Blakeway says. “With small children, the needles are in and out.” Points on the body can also be stimulated by massage, heat, or magnets, and this less invasive approach is often a good way to introduce babies to the treatment. Blakeway tried an electrical stimulation machine first. Nothing much happened. “We thought: Eh – this isn’t going to work either,” Michael says. Then Blakeway switched to real needles and started their son on an herbal formula specifically designed for babies. Within a matter of three or four days, the Williams saw a huge improvement. The eczema had cleared up except for a small patch by their son’s elbow. Once under control, the Williams maintained treatments once every three weeks.

Andreanna Doyle, a mother from Staten Island, also took her baby to YinOva for acupuncture. Doyle had signed up for the treatment herself when she was pregnant with her second child and experiencing terrible morning sickness. “I couldn’t keep anything down, and I’d read there are high success rates with acupuncture and morning sickness,” she says. In addition to working with babies, Blakeway specializes in helping women through fertility and hormonal issues. Acupuncture helped Doyle so much she became a huge proponent of the holistic therapy.

Years later, Doyle had a third baby – a daughter named Lily. Beginning at just a couple weeks old, Lily kept catching colds and had persistent respiratory trouble, including recurring ear infections. “There was little Western medicine could offer,” Doyle says. Antibiotics can work wonders for a serious infection, but it can be worrisome if kids get into a cycle of taking them repeatedly (the overuse of antibiotics can make them less effective).

When Lily was an infant, she didn’t notice the needles. “The treatment lasted about three and a half minutes,” Doyle recalls. And it worked – the ear infections stopped. When Lily got a little older and experienced a bout of eczema, Doyle took her back to Blakeway. At 18 months, Lily was much more savvy. She would start crying when Blakeway entered the room.

Blakeway says she tends to switch over to the electric stimulation machine (otherwise known as “the tickle machine”) at times like these. “When kids have had enough shots that they have become adverse to needles, I swap to the tickle machine. It doesn’t work quite as well, but it works reasonably well, and it preserves my relationship with my little patients,” she says. When the kids are about five or six, Blakeway starts negotiating with them about using needles again.

How can parents help a nervous child through acupuncture? “If parents don’t act frightened, most kids are totally fine,” says Ellen Silver Highfield, who has been providing acupuncture at Children’s Hospital Boston for over ten years. One way to show kids it doesn’t hurt is to let the acupuncturist demonstrate on you, the parent. Highfield also suggests making sure the practitioner shows your kids how tiny the needles are. “I try to give kids as much power as possible. They can choose if we start on the hand or foot.”

As far as risks, they are low. A hematoma or soreness at the insertion area is possible, but not likely. The most important step is to find a board-certified and licensed acupuncturist by checking nccaom.org, and to make sure the practitioner you choose is trained in pediatrics.

Although acupuncture worked on the Williams’ son and Doyle’s daughter, there is little, if any, Western research supporting the claim that acupuncture helps eczema and ear infections. “Pain, nausea, and shortness of breath are the conditions best treated by acupuncture in pediatrics,” says Kemper, who has dedicated her career to increasing the integration of complimentary medicine into pediatric practice. Also, acupuncture may not be covered by health insurance. For the Williams, it didn’t matter. “We were spending far more money on dermatologists, hospital visits, and creams,” Michael says. Finally, just because it worked for these kids doesn’t mean it will work for your child. “Acupuncture can be highly successful, mildly, or not at all,” says Highfield. “You don’t know until someone has undergone several treatments.”

For the Williams, there’s no doubt acupuncture was the right avenue. “Life is completely different now,” Michael says. “I wish we’d tried it sooner.”

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