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The Healing Power of Touch: Massage as Medicine

In the 13th Century the German Emperor Frederick II, curious to know what language children would speak if they were raised without hearing any words at all, decided to conduct a little empirical research. Seizing a number of newborn children from their parents he handed them to nurses with strict instruction to feed them but neither talk to or hold them.

The babies never learnt a language. They all died before they could talk. Frederick’s experiment whilst failing to find the answer to his desired question had nevertheless made an important discovery; that tactile stimulation is essential to life.

Unfortunately Frederick’s findings has inadvertienly been confirmed many times since then, most recently during the 1990’s in Romania, when thousands of infants warehoused in orphanages and left virtually alone in cribs for two years were found to be severely impaired. Such findings only serves to confirm what we instinctively know that touch and contact is a primal need, as necessary for growth as food, clothing and shelter.

Michelangelo realised this when he painted God extending a hand towards Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He chose a casual, carefree touch to depict the gift of life itself.

From the caresses between a mother and a child that form the foundations of self, to the holding of hands between a child and a dying parent that allows a final letting go, touch is our most intimate and powerful form of communication.

There are no less than 5,000 000 touch receptors in our skin, with 3,000 being present in a single fingertip, touch has the ability to reduce heart rate and lower blood pressure. It communicates the message you are not alone I am with you.

Touch stimulates the brain to produce endorphins, the bodies natural pain suppressers, or opiates for the ‘feel good’ factor. This is why a mother’s kiss on an infants scratched knee can quite literally ‘heal’ it.

Touch enhances the immune functions and thereby builds resistance to disease. Touch lowers the levels of the stress hormones cortisol and norephrine. Touch stimulates the vagus cranial nerve which influence various bodily functions; – one branch of which travels to the gastrointestinal tract, where it facilitates the release of food-absorption’s hormones such as insulin and glucose. This explains why massaged premature babies gain weight faster; their food absorption is more efficient than non-massaged premature babies.

So why when it has so many wonderful, proven, benefits do we still find so much resistance to massage?

Partly because we live in a culture that is still essentially ‘touchy about touch’.

Many insurance companies shy of insuring such treatments particularly on infants.

A limited nursing staff who are over worked and underpaid now and who as such have little time to take on additional responsibilities of either training or duties due to inadequate resources.

The Miami Touch Research Institute (TRI) the world’s only scientific centre devoted to exploring the effects of touch on health. In research conducted on the benefits of massage on premature babies discovered that such massage may in fact be saving the infants lives. The TRI study of premature babies suggested results, which were astonishing.

They conducted a study providing to premature infants three massages a day for a period of 10 days, which they found not only increased alertness, activity, responsivity more than other nonmassaged infants of same size and premature condition. But that the children became more tolerant to noise and to be able to quiet themselves. That they slept more deeply. And had fewer episodes of apnea; a brief cessation of breathing; a risk factor of sudden infant death syndrome, and they were found to gain weight at a staggering 47% faster than the nonmassaged child and thus were able to leave hospital sooner.

These advantages for premature infants who have massage are also applicable to all babies it is just the progress you would be hoping for is with a more long-term view rather than an immediate one as with the premature child one is hoping to make them safe, stabilise their condition and get them out of the isolette. In general child or baby massage what the mother is aiming for is the development of a happy healthy child both physically and emotionally.

Baby massage in general helps to establish the following in an individual:

-The development of a sound personality, inner strength, resourcefulness and independence.
-An enhanced immune system with increased resistance to disease.
-Enhanced bonding between parent and child.
-To stimulate, develop and strengthen all the body’s developing systems.
-To develop muscle strength co-ordination and improved joint flexibility.
-To improve baby’s sleep pattern by introducing relaxation and calmness.
-In addition massage can help with some childhood problems such as dry skin which can be common baby condition aggravated by preparations such as talc and baby oil. Such preparations are mineral oil-based and thus are not easily absorbed by the skin and can cause pores to become blocked and can make babies sensitive skin dryer.

Another skin condition common to the early months of childhood, which can be greatly improved by massage, is cradle cap. This refers to a brown flaky mark on scalp. Shampoo tends to aggravate this condition, drying it out, but gentle stroking with grapeseed or almond oil moistens skin and serves to loosen the cradle cap.

Bonding refers to strong physical, emotional and spiritual attachment. For bonding to occur between babies and the parents special time together needs to be made, particularly straight after birth, which is why more people are choosing home births of the Leboyer type, where there is minimum medical and technological and nursing procedures to interfere with the normal birth process.

This way the birth experience, the bonding and the welcoming time all belong to the parents and their new baby. The mother and her baby are not separated but close together, and soon get to know each other; the father at their sides, involved, loving and bonding too.

The baby through touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell develops bonding. Behaviour by parents such as fondling and gazing are indicators of bonding attachment to their baby.

The ideal birth, is however not always possible sometimes things go wrong and medical intervention is needed. Events which interfere with mother/child bonding are delay in infant and mother being together after the birth; drugs which anaesthetise either mother or baby, prolonged separation after a Caesarean Section, or the necessary use of the isolette. In such instances massage given to the child by a person other than the parents can be very calming to the child and reduce the separation anxiety such a situation can cause.

Remember up until the moment of birth, when due to powerful uterine contractions the baby has been squeezed down the narrow birth canal and thrust upon the world, he/she has been completely surrounded and supported by the womb and has been intimately connected to the mother and suddenly is all alone and very afraid.

Whilst some hospitals respect the Leboyer type of birth so often in hospitals a normal birth involves noise, bright lights and separation from the mother and thus little opportunity for bonding.

Massage is an expression of pure love through a special kind of positive, caring touch. When mothers massage their babies at an early age, the massage continues the bonding process and helps to establish a warm, positive, parent-child relationship. It also creates a metaphysical energy flow of love between mother and child.

This is an energising experience to both and a deep communication is formed. Baby massage is an introduction of caring touch to and infant that can continue to any age. Toddlers, teenagers and adults are all more receptive to touch if they were massaged as babies. They have been granted permission to touch; reassured that it is okay.

Where there is a lack of loving touch with a child the emotional and physical development of that child will be impaired of arrested; if given freely the child will become confident self assured and to have an inner strength and resolve which will make them more prepared to cope with life and less prone to anxiety and fearfulness. Likewise a child that has been taught to appreciate positive touch is unlikely to later be someone who would engage in negative touch which is so much a problem today.

Massage is also useful for improving the relationship between mother and child when it has been strained by a difficult ‘colicky’, irritable baby and mum feels negative angry thoughts about this child. The interjection of a positive, touching caressing approach may be invaluable in altering the mother’s negative reaction to a positive one. Massage is in general a means of reducing stress between parents and their child.

Through massage a warm and loving relationship is developed, and a positive flow of love between parents and baby is established. The love of the parents, directly expressed through touch, promotes relaxation and encourages the baby’s growth and self-healing potential. Massage is beneficial to babies in their developing years and can remain valuable throughout their lives. When early bonding is well established and the mother child relationship is warm and caring, it lays the foundation for similar warmth and caring with others in later life.

Likewise, holding a child close will provide a valuable energy exchange from mother to child. Breast feeding or; if have to bottle feed supporting the child next to a bare breast as you give them the bottle can be helpful. Along with the use of baby ruck-sacs which are useful; allowing mum to get through her daily activities with baby feeling secure next to her body warmth and heartbeat and hearing her voice and smell. All are calming to a baby. However, in Britain we seem to have the idea that to give a child so much contact will spoil them whilst in fact it will serve to provide them with the best start in life based in security and confidence of their parents unconditional love.

Dawes N. Harold F. : Massage Cures. London. Thorsons 1988
Ashley Montagu’s Touching : The Human Significance of the Skin. London. Harper and Row.
Walker P. : The Book of Baby Massage. London Bloomsbury 1988
Amelia D. Auckett : Baby Massage The magic of the loving touch
Frederick Leyboyer : Birth Without Violence 1974
Newsheets from the Organisation for Prenatal Education

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Tel: 01892 518670

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