When we think of auriculotherapy, ear acupressure, and ear seeds, applying such treatments to babies’ ears is not what comes to mind first. In fact, applying ear seeds for babies and very young children is often discouraged by acupressure professionals and healthcare providers.
But researchers out of Vanderbilt have a special use case for ear seeds for babies, and it’s all about using this type of therapy as part of a larger treatment protocol for babies who have neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS).
Before we jump in, here’s a quick definition of ear seeds if you’re new: Ear seeds are tiny pellets or beads that attach to the ear on specific points or spots known to correlate to particular parts or systems of the body. And guess what? We sell them! So if you’ve been thinking about trying them out, grab a My First Ear Seeds Kit in our online store.
What is neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS)?
Neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) is the official term for the condition of babies we hear about who were exposed to opioids or other substances, by their mothers, while the babies were in the womb. Once born, these babies go through withdrawals, experiencing symptoms like tremors, seizures, trouble eating, throwing up, diarrhea, weight issues, breathing problems, and more.
Sadly, the number of babies reported to have NOWS continues to climb in the United States year over year as opioid addiction increases.
Treatment for NOWS has traditionally involved the use of pharmaceuticals, but in recent years, more complementary and alternative approaches have been embraced, with or without the medicines used to gently help the babies out of withdrawal. These non-pharmaceutical approaches include simple tactics like breastfeeding, caregiver skin-to-skin physical touch, and soothing, low-stimulation environments.
Can ear seeds benefit babies with NOWS?
The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) has a special ear acupuncture protocol that’s considered an effective treatment for people with addiction and withdrawals. It involves using acupuncture needles on Shen Men, Sympathetic, Kidney, Liver, and Lung ear acupressure points.
Vanderbilt’s Dr. Heather Jackson and her team of researchers reference, in their study, a couple of other studies that have found acupuncture to be an effective therapy for infants with certain conditions.
More research is needed on the efficacy of auricular acupressure with infants, however.
Therefore, the purpose of Dr. Jackson’s study was to understand not whether ear seeds work to reduce NOWS symptoms, but to find out whether hospital staff and mothers could even feasibly and willingly incorporate ear seeds for babies into their standard care.
How practical or feasible is using ear seeds for babies with NOWS?
Although the sample size of Dr. Jackson and her team’s study was small, with only 12 participants, the outcomes are positive:
- Safety: Ear seeds, as a non-invasive acupressure intervention, were considered to be safe, with no skin irritation observed.
- Gentleness: Most of the babies stay asleep when the ear seeds were applied to their ears, indicating minimal to no disruption of much-needed shut eye in the recovering infants.
- Acceptance by mothers: The mothers in the study were largely very accepting of ear seeds for their babies; one mother asked for ear seeds for herself, and another mentioned wanting to share about the study on her social media.
- Acceptance and willingness by healthcare providers working with the babies: Provider sentiment was, for the most part, neutral to positive. Nursing staff often made qualitative remarks, sharing their feelings that the ear seeds for babies were “helping” the infants in their care. Four advanced practice providers were trained in NADA acupressure placement and application. They successfully seeded the babies’ ears (Shen Men, Liver, and Lung were the targeted ear acupressure points) within 24 hours after delivery, and thereafter on a rotational schedule until the babies met certain criteria or were discharged from the hospital.
- Non-interruption of primary, standard care: The idea behind the ear seeds for babies in a hospital setting and while treating such an urgent condition as NOWS is that the seeds should not interrupt the typical standard of care. And the good news is that they did not! The worst thing that happened was that a few ear seeds fell of the babies’ ears, but new seeds were easily applied, and the study continued.
For babies who, in this study, had been exposed in utero to incredibly harmful substances — buprenorphine, tobacco, amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, opioids, alcohol, and benzodiazepines, all to varying degrees — the findings around acceptance of an ear seed protocol for babies as they heal is encouraging.
To sum it up
With Dr. Jackson and her team leading the way on acupressure research, and specifically the use of ear seeds in a hospital setting (and with babies, no less!), we are excited by the potential of ear seeds to take off and become more mainstream.
One research study on ear seeds’ effectiveness leads to another and another, and before long, we’re making huge strides in our mission to see every ear seeded (with some exceptions, of course).
We would like to thank Dr. Heather Jackson for sharing her evidence-based, peer-reviewed article with us via email and, more important, for her incredible contributions in the field of healthcare.
Jackson, H. J., Lopez, C., Miller, S., & Englehardt, B. (2021). Feasibility of auricular acupressure as an adjunct treatment for neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS). Substance Abuse, 42(3), 348-357. https://doi.org/10.1080/08897077.2020.1784360