Shonishin – Acupuncture for Babies & Children

Working here in Galloway I am very rarely asked to give treatment to young children. Since most peoples’ understanding of acupuncture is probably quite limited, and many are wary of needles themselves, taking their child to an acupuncturist is probably the last thing they would think of. But this is such a shame, because the gentle holistic approach of Oriental medicine has so much to offer children. For parents who are concerned about the possible adverse effects of modern medicine on their children, and are looking for a more natural approach, traditional acupuncture and shonishin therapy can offer a very different and rewarding way to support the health of their child.

Shonishin - Acupuncture for Babies & Children

Shonishin is a Japanese term that literally means “Childrens’ needle”. It refers to a practice that dates back about 300 years, to a time when acupuncture tools and techniques were no doubt a lot rougher than they are these days.  Shonishin probably developed as acupuncture practitioners looked for a gentler approach that did not hurt or frighten children, leaving them calm and easier to treat effectively. It has been widely used in Japan since the early 20th century. There are still very few practitioners in the UK, but I was lucky enough to receive training from my acupuncture mentor Stephen Birch, who has been treating children for over 25 years and played a major role in introducing these techniques into Europe, Australia and the USA.

Shonishin tools come in many fascinating shapes and sizes, and each practitioner tends to have their own preferred selection or may even design their own

Although shonishin is based on theories of oriental medicine and acupuncture, one big difference is that normal acupuncture needles are not used. Instead, modified forms of a very mild stimulation are provided by various metal tools being gently tapped, stroked, rubbed or pressed on the body surface without insertion into the skin. Shonishin tools come in many fascinating shapes and sizes, and each practitioner tends to have their own preferred selection or may even design their own. Here is a photo of some that I use.

Stroking would usually be done down the arms legs and torso, using a round ended tool such as the enshin. The rounded end of the yoneyama is also used to stroke or rub, by holding it quite flat against the skin, whilst the pointed end can be held between the finger and thumb, but not protruding, and lightly tapped on the skin to stimulate a particular point. Pressing of points can be achieved using the spring-loaded teishin, a blunt ended tool which is bounced up and down on the skin to give a mild vibration. The choice of technique and the complexity of the treatment depends on the age of the child – very young babies need only the most simple treatment that may last only a couple of minutes.

One of the most important things to bear in mind when treating children is how sensitive they are. Since babies cannot talk they can only express themselves through their emotions. These are uncontrolled and can be easily triggered, leading to an emotional outburst which upsets the whole body, confusing the diagnosis and making treatment difficult. Obviously this situation needs to be avoided, and I may spend at least half of any appointment finding ways to help the child feel settled and calm before we begin the treatment. With slightly older babies who are more aware of what I am doing, curiosity and suspicion can impede progress – usually they want to grab the tools I am using and suck them! Of course, there is always at least one parent at hand to help but we sometimes need to be quite creative in applying effective treatment which they think is all part of a game.

Compared with older people babies have a much faster physiology, heart beat, breathing rate and so on – and their energy will move very quickly when stimulated. Just as they need smaller doses of medicine, they also need much less stimulation from shonishin tools. Part of the skill of shonishin is to learn how to recognise subtle changes in the skin tone during treatment, as this is a way of monitoring the child’s response. I remember treating a 4 year old girl once and I must have done too much because she had an uncharacteristic fit of giggles for about 15 minutes afterwards, to the amazement of her mother. In most cases, with a correctly judged treatment the child should be calm and relaxed afterwards, and perfectly happy to return for another treatment.

What kind of things can be treated with shonishin?

Most young babies have problems related to either respiration (including coughing, asthma, stuffy nose), nourishment (eating, digesting, and eliminating their food and growing at the appropriate rate) or sleep. Shonishin techniques of stroking, tapping etc. are aimed at general improvement of the vitality of the body and regulation of these various functions. Because of their volatile emotions, the Qi, or life force energy of young babies tends to move upwards – hence the red face, frantic crying, inability to settle, etc. This can lead to what acupuncturists call counterflow Qi, where the downward flowing energy needed to keep food going through the system and nourishing the lower parts of the body is disrupted, and symptoms such as coughing, vomiting, bed wetting and diarrhoea can develop.  Stroking along energy pathways in a downward direction can have a remarkable calming effect on the baby, whilst gentle stimulation of specific areas such as the belly or upper chest can help to redistribute the energy and relieve symptoms.  

Sometimes treating children seems almost miraculous. Once, while staying in a small town in South Africa, I was asked to help a 3 year old girl who had fallen and badly injured her arm. It was not broken but was swollen and so painful that she had not stopped crying for days and could not sleep at all. I visited the family in their tiny shack. None could speak English so diagnosis was a matter of gently feeling the skin surface. I did not really know what I could do, but it was clear that the family, all crowded round, had high expectations of this White “doctor”.  While her mother held her, I did some stroking along the energy channels of her arm, and left a tiny gold bead on a weak point on her wrist to stimulate the energy flow. The little girl was quite happy after her treatment but I told them all not to expect too much change.  The next morning I had a visit from the mother to say that the child had slept all night and was now outside playing with her friends and using her arm without pain!

As children develop, their bodies and energy systems become more complex and this simple treatment model has to be expanded. With children over 3 years old I usually use a combination of very gentle non-insertive acupuncture and shonishin techniques. It can be very rewarding to see how quickly they respond to treatment, compared with older people whose conditions have become chronic and difficult to shift. I have seen acupuncture help children to overcome problems such as anxiety, digestive problems, eczema, hay fever, eye problems and even mild epilepsy. 

Childrens’ illnesses can impact on their whole family and the decision to choose acupuncture treatment can become a new and interesting journey for the parents as well as the child. It is often very beneficial to teach parents how to carry out simply techniques such as stroking and tapping (improvised tools such as silver spoons can be used), so they can continue daily treatment at home between visits to the clinic.  I may also give advice on dietary issues that could be affecting the child’s health. Most parents are very pleased that they can do something themselves to help, and sometimes it gives them a new way of understanding their child’s problem.