When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was trained as a Certified Instructor of Infant Massage (CIIM) with the hope that I would get to teach infant massage to new parents, but primarily for myself to learn more about the value of touch as a parent. As a massage therapist, I was well versed in the many ways that massage therapy is valuable to adults. It was a revelation to me just how vital touch is to our existence, our sense of the world, our sense of ourselves and our communication with those around us.
Touch is the first sense to develop in-utero; before we can hear, see, taste or smell, we feel. Our sense of touch is primary to learning about the external world and how we get to know our own bodies. As we grow, regular, consistent touch enhances our sensory integration, that is, the body-brain connection. As parents and caregivers, we can be aware that intentional touch or massage on our child’s skin and muscles, accompanied by calming, positive facial and verbal cues, is an invititation to experience touch as relaxing while also helping her to develop a clear internal “map “ of her body.
Positive touch is critical to our well-being. There are numerous studies that have been done all over the world that reinforce what we already know instinctively: positive touch enhances one’s sense of wellness, peace, overall health, ability to learn, and decreases stress levels and aggressive behaviors. Studies have shown that children at preschools who exhibit aggressive behavior, learning challenges and sensory integration issues benefit greatly from receiving daily massage of 10-15 minutes. From our own experience, each of us knows that loving, affectionate touch simply feels good, and, in fact, medical research has shown that both receiving and giving affectionate touch increases the flow of oxytocin, “the love/bonding hormone” which is present in all humans. Research also shows that when oxytocin flows, we are incapable of aggressive behavior. Encouraging the flow of oxytocin by sharing affectionate and caring touch is the perfect antidote to the stress hormones we are bombarded with in our hectic society
As parents and caregivers, when we offer positive touch to our children, we have the ability to communicate so much:
- that our child deserves loving attention;
- through our own relaxed bodies, we convey a sense of peace and well-being;
- when offering touch to preschoolers (and people of all ages, from infancy to old age) we begin by asking if they want our loving touch and what part of their body they would like to have touched or massaged. We respond to their cues about what feels good or not good. This communicates respect for them as they learn about respectful touch and develop their own boundaries;
- touch can be fun. Games can be played, like a backrub that is planting a garden, or a treasure hunt;
- touch can be healing; offering an embrace when someone is sad, “coming down” from a tantrum, having difficulty sleeping.
Since her birth, my daughter has received regular massage, focusing more on the message that she can receive loving touch and dedicated attention than on the specifics of doing certain strokes “correctly”. We ask her if she wanted massage and followed the cues she gives us about what feels good and not good. Now, at 4 years, my daughter will often ask for massage, and will tell us exactly what part of her body and how she wants to be massaged (e.g. light and tickly on the skin, or deeper into her muscles). I notice that the nights when she is restless at bedtime, if I rub her feet and her back, her body will quiet very quickly. I notice for myself that when I begin to massage her, I feel more relaxed and less attached to her falling asleep right away. I enter into the process of winding down with her, notice my own breathing deepen, and feel joyful that something so simple can affect her deeply. I also notice that when she sees a friend who is really upset or who has just gotten hurt, she’ll often step closer to her friend, will reach out to touch her or his chest or back, and take a deep breath herself.
Establishing a regular practice of massage, or loving touch, is a valuable part of creating and maintaining a peaceful home environment, and it’s never too late to start. As a professional in the field of touch therapy, my advice is to not get caught up in doing anything “right”, but to focus on what you communicate to yourself and to your child as you continue or develop a practice of massage with your young one. It is the asking permission, offering positive touch and the communication of love and well-being that matter. Enjoy this most basic of nutrients for a peaceful life.
Some web resources:
Foundation for Healthy Family Living: http://www.healthyfamily.org/
Peaceful Touch: http://www.peacefultouch.net/index.html
Touch Research Institute: http://www6.miami.edu/touch-research/