By Shirley Vanderbilt
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2003.
"Every child, no matter the age, should be massaged at bedtime on a regular basis.” So says Tiffany Field, PhD, of the Touch Research Institute (TRI) in Miami, Florida. Field and her associates at TRI have worked diligently over the past decade to prove the benefits of massage for children. But this is not a new concept. Infant massage has long been a common practice in many cultures. Many indigenous tribes use some form of bodywork to soothe, relax, and heal their little ones, sometimes including scented oils and herbal remedies as part of the experience. With our modern technology and hurried lives, we frequently find ourselves lacking in quality family time and touching each other less. The ancient practice of massage can serve to reaffirm a close bond with our children, and convey a comforting sense of security and trust.
Touch is the first sense to develop in humans. It is essential to our health and well-being. Babies have been known to fail to thrive and even die without an adequate amount of physical contact. Adults also can become depressed and ill if they are isolated from this most basic of human needs. Children who learn healthy views of touch and are provided with positive tactile experience by their caregivers are more likely to grow up to be adults with healthy self-esteem, a sense of appropriate boundaries, and long-lasting intimate relationships.
TRI researcher Maria Hernandez-Reif, PhD, says she regularly gives massage to her own daughter. When asked if other parents should do the same, she says, “Absolutely, a daily massage at least. That’s what the studies show. Regardless of whether it’s an infant, a child with illness, a preschooler, pregnant women, or the elderly, we have found that massage benefits all age groups and individuals of different conditions.”
Massage is a wonderful stress-buster for children. “Oftentimes when we think about stress,” Hernandez-Reif says, “we think it’s just an adult condition, that only adults have stress. But if you think about it, even young infants and children are prone to stress.” A young child starting school who is unfamiliar with the area or children in the class will experience stress. Family illness or financial problems, divorce, and even vacations can produce emotional strain. Hernandez-Reif notes that one of the consistent findings in studies of the benefits of massage therapy is a reduction in stress and stress hormone levels: “There is a relationship between stress and the immune system. If stress hormones are chronically elevated, the [hormone] cortisol will destroy the healthy immune cells that fight viruses and tumors and keep the immune system healthy. If you can reverse that, you not only reduce stress but also reduce stress hormones, allowing the immune system to bounce back and do its job, which is to heal the body and keep it healthy.”
As for children’s behavioral response to massage, she says, “They are happier and in a better mood. We have observed they appear more relaxed, calm, and oftentimes fall asleep during massage.” If it’s the child’s first massage, they may squirm a bit because they are not familiar with this type of touch. Due to the discomfort and pain of medical procedures inflicted on them, infants and especially premature babies may have developed a negative association with touch. Given this new, positive experience they relax and their bodies quiet down.
With infants, a gentle gliding stroke is applied to the body, but as the child grows older, the massage may become more sophisticated to include work on the feet, fingers, and toes, and use of more extensive types of strokes and techniques. “Teens are a little different,” Hernandez-Reif says. “With young children we can train the mother or parent to do massage for a daily dose. Teens, however, don’t seem to like their parents giving them massage. They respond better to a massage therapist.” TRI’s guideline of 15- to 20-minute sessions is a good rule to follow at home. Longer sessions can be overstimulating or even uncomfortable for a younger child with a short attention span.
One of the best ways to give your baby safe, positive messages about touch is to give them massage on a regular basis. Early infant massage may stimulate the developing nervous system and brain, and memory of that positive touch may then be permanently registered in the body cells. Massage promotes a sense of comfort in your baby and makes her less prone to colic. As the baby grows, the stroking of massage prepares the body for sitting, standing, and walking by promoting strength, motor coordination, and self-confidence. Infant massage is becoming very popular with new parents and a number of resources are now available to get you started. In addition to books and videos, you can find certified infant massage therapy instructors in local private practice and at hospitals and clinics specializing in holistic medicine.
Once massage is established as a family routine, it can benefit your child throughout his growing years. Preschoolers have shown better performance on tests of their intellectual and manual skills after a 15-minute massage. They also slept better during naps, were less likely to be overactive, and had better behavior ratings. For teens struggling with the growing pains of adolescence, massage helps relieve anxiety by producing a state of relaxation. A supportive relationship with a massage therapist who gives them safe, unconditional touch can also increase their feelings of self-acceptance and self-confidence during those trying years.
Children with Special Needs
The studies at TRI have ranged from massage for preterm infants to parent-administered massage for children with chronic illness. This research is having a profound impact on pediatric health care, providing a noninvasive treatment within a positive, nurturing experience. Preterm infants and cocaine-exposed and HIV-positive newborns have responded to massage with increased weight gain, decreased stress behavior, and improved motor skills tests. Preterm babies also slept better and were more alert and active.
Stress has been identified as a major contributor to exacerbated symptoms in children with chronic illness, if not the root of the disease itself. Coping with frequent hospitalizations, painful or uncomfortable treatments, and restrictions on diet and daily activities can take its toll on parents and siblings as well as the patient. Massage reduces stress hormone levels and provides an ideal opportunity for positive interaction between parent and child in the midst of the negatives of treatment. In TRI’s studies on chronic illnesses, parents were instructed in administering nightly massage sessions. Across the board, not only did children’s symptoms improve, but both the child and parents experienced a decrease in anxiety.
Controlling stress is crucial for children with diabetes, asthma, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA), and skin problems. As stress hormone levels rise, symptoms increase—in the case of diabetes and asthma, sometimes putting the child’s life at risk. In TRI’s research, massage has been shown to improve blood sugar levels in diabetics, improve pulmonary function in asthmatics, decrease JRA pain, and improve skin conditions in children with eczema. Massage for children with cancer is currently being studied by TRI with the expectation that it will decrease the stress of medical procedures and boost the immune system. “From my perspective, one of the most important research findings from our studies is that massage therapy increases natural killer cells,” Hernandez-Reif says. “These cells are constantly traveling through our body looking for foreign objects and tumors to destroy. Massage therapy naturally boosts these cells. This has tremendous implication about the benefits of massage for keeping people healthy.”
Massage has proven equally effective for psychological and behavioral problems. Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) exhibited less hyperactivity and more on-task behavior, and generally were happier with regular massage treatments. For autistic children, there was a decrease in touch sensitivity and disruptive behavior, and increased ability to relate to their teachers. Adolescents suffering from bulimia had improved body image and decreased depression and anxiety, while teen psychiatric patients experienced improved sleep and clinical progress as well as decreased depression, anxiety, and stress.
“What we would like to see is for massage therapy to be added to standard care—not to take the place of medical care, but to go hand-in-hand with the doctor’s care to help the child recover more quickly,” Hernandez-Reif says. “I think it’s a great tool.”
Touch is essential to a child’s development, sense of well-being, and good health. Children reach out for touch as naturally as they do for food and water. A nightly massage can ensure that touch is a positive, nurturing part of their human experience. And, as Field says, “They love it.”