In a TikTok with 2.4 million likes, a chiropractor dangles a baby upside down by her legs. The hair bow tied around her head doesn’t move as he raises and lowers her playfully, occasionally lying her down in his lap to play peekaboo. During the visit, he audibly but gently cracks her neck and back — what’s known in the chiropractic field as an adjustment — while she continues to smile.
The video was posted by bodybuilder Kevin Clevenger and is one of the more dramatic examples of a young child getting a chiropractic adjustment. On TikTok and Instagram, you can find thousands of videos of squishy babies undergoing treatments, although not everyone thinks those adjustments are a good idea.
Chiropractor videos featuring adults have long been popular on social media, where the adjustments and their resulting cracks have been called “satisfying” and “relaxing.” But as more users share videos of infants being adjusted, the reactions have become more polarized. Some groups have criticized the practice as “snake oil for babies,” a “sham,” and “quackery.” Others, particularly in Instagram’s “crunchy mom” community of parents dedicated to “holistic, all natural” care for their kids, highly recommend it — no matter what the haters say.
Clevenger, who has posted about his own experiences with alternative health remedies like cold plunges and plasma injections, told BuzzFeed News that his daughter was "less fussy and a lot happier" after the adjustment and she now sees a chiropractor once a month. He said that he expected people to be critical of the video, but "almost everyone who had something negative to say had no experience with it."
The chiropractors we talked to said the treatments are gentle and age-appropriate for their youngest patients. But not all chiropractors and doctors think adjustments are appropriate for every baby, and some don't think they're a good idea for children at all.
“I think most people are nervous about chiropractic care in general because it seems a little aggressive, especially manual adjustments for adults,” said Dr. Lindsay Pelley, a chiropractor specializing in pediatrics at the University of Western States Health Center in Oregon. “But if you’re going to a specialized pediatric chiropractor, there are minimal risks. It’s a very gentle, conservative way to improve the baby and most likely mom's quality of life with minimal intervention.”
Pelley said baby manipulations usually only involve sustained pressure to misaligned joints that’s “just enough to bruise a tomato,” so very rarely do you hear any pops or cracks, although babies might shed a tear or two due to discomfort. Some babies might be sore afterward, “but that’s very unlikely if the practitioner is actually utilizing the best practices for pediatric patients,” she said.
Parents and caregivers take babies to chiropractors for a wide variety of reasons, some of which begin in the womb. There’s a relatively common condition called torticollis that occurs when babies are born with or later develop a twisted neck. This can cause them to develop plagiocephaly, a treatable health issue where there is a flattening of the head or face on one side. This can also bring about some stiffness, which can lead to problems breastfeeding and spinal pain, according to Dr. Kimberly Nelson with Northern Nevada Chiropractic.
Otherwise, the birthing process is pretty traumatic for babies, chiropractors say. Squeezing through the vaginal canal is no easy feat, especially if they’re not in the right position. Not to mention the other hassles babies deal with; chiropractors have published case reports about treatments for infants and toddlers with ailments unrelated to muscles and joints, such as ear infections, constipation, GERD, sleep difficulties, and colic, which is unexplained frequent and intense crying that lasts three or more hours a day.
However, keep in mind that a case report can’t prove that a treatment helps — you need a placebo-controlled trial for that. One randomized study published in Archives of Disease in Childhood in 2001 found that chiropractic treatment was no better than a placebo when it came to treating infant colic. For the placebo, the babies were held by a nurse rather than being treated by a chiropractor. About 60% of infants in both groups showed an improvement according to their parents, likely because placebos — in this case, help or support for caregivers with a colicky infant who also received counseling as part of the study — can be a powerful treatment on their own.
Sometimes the desire for holistic care drives “crunchy” parents to pursue natural remedies above all else — see homeopathy, raw milk, essential oils, and even chiropractic adjustments. At its worst, the desire for a more organic lifestyle can lead parents to reject modern medicine, as notably has occurred during the push for COVID-19 vaccinations and a new, pro-freedom iteration of the anti-vax movement.
The philosophy of the “crunchy mom” doesn’t always go that far, though. Those who take to social media to share the alternative care that has helped them and their children feel better swear by the tangible results they get. Such is the case with influencers who have taken their babies to the chiropractor.
Kurin Emerick, who describes herself on TikTok as “your crunchy mom friend,” told BuzzFeed News she started seeing a chiropractor while she was pregnant, and it went so well that she started asking more questions about what they could do for her baby once he was born. She said she has personally seen improvements in their sleep, breastfeeding, pain relief, and overall happiness.
“We took our son at three days old and he melted into her arms as she adjusted him,” she said. “With my daughter Sicily, our chiropractor attended our home birth and adjusted our daughter at only two hours old while I was breastfeeding her. Again, Sicily was melting into our arms as she received her first adjustment after birth.”
TikToker and mom Elizabeth Owens told BuzzFeed News she also went to the chiropractor while she was pregnant with her daughter Goldie. She decided to take the baby for an adjustment as soon as she was born after reading about “the trauma babies go through during birth.” She said it has helped her baby daughter relax and sleep better and relieved constipation for her other child, who was 1 year old at the time.
“It isn’t cracks and pops, it’s gentle massages and stretches done on places that cause discomfort,” she said. “There my newborn and toddler don’t know what it is, and I see physical changes in them after every appointment.”
Some chiropractors like Danny DeReuter, who practices in Georgia and posts videos on TikTok working on babies for his nearly 84,000 followers, recommends all parents and caregivers bring their babies in for an evaluation.
However, Pelley said it’s critical that the child’s healthcare team deems chiropractic an appropriate treatment based on the youngster’s medical history and needs.
Dr. Stephen George, an orthopedic surgeon and director of spine surgery at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Florida, agrees. He said understanding the cause behind the pain or misalignment is key, otherwise chiropractors “may be doing patients harm if they blindly assume that a manipulation won’t hurt them.”
Studies show that adults in rare cases can experience neurological complications following neck manipulations, such as stroke and decreased blood flow to the brain, according to a 2002 review published in the journal Paediatrics & Child Health.
“When you look at the literature, the risk profile of a lot of the techniques and manipulations they do is pretty low, but the data on the success of them is also not always strong,” George told BuzzFeed News. “In our treatment algorithm, we may try some things that are less evidence-based, but we always have to risk stratify … and being realistic about what your appetite for risk is very important.”
Some experts are even less inclined to consider chiropractic adjustments as an option in pediatric care.
“Babies and children are not little adults. They're an entirely different entity as far as their anatomy, how they experience pain, and how their muscles and bones interact,” said Dr. Sean Tabaie, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children's National Hospital in Washington, DC. “If it really helps, then that's fine, you should do what you think helps your child, but you should be aware of the consequences.
“I would never recommend a kid go to the chiropractor,” he added.
Children are considered developmentally immature until age 14 for girls and 16 for boys, Tabaie said. Manipulating babies’ tiny bodies can damage their soft tissue, which includes muscles, nerves, and blood vessels, he said.
An injury to a vessel, for example, could lead to stroke or, in more serious cases, paralysis. Tabaie said he’s heard anecdotally that a child developed a pulmonary embolism — a blood clot that travels to the lungs and blocks blood flow — after a chiropractic adjustment, which is very rare in healthy kids.
“There’s no quick fix,” Tabaie said. “As adults, we have aches and pains, we feel stiff, but those things don’t correlate with children. So, it’s not an apples-to-apples thing.”
As for dangling babies upside down by their legs, it is a legit technique taught in chiropractic school — albeit a controversial one, according to DeReuter, the Georgia TikTok chiropractor. In fact, in 2019, an Australian chiropractor sparked outrage after holding a 2-week-old baby upside down in a viral video.
Although it’s been taught since chiropractic’s inception, the field has since become a more “evidence-informed practice,” Pelley said. In other words, the technique has got to go: “That is not a practice that I think is appropriate. There’s no reason to be doing that.”