The healing power of infant and child massage


By Dr. Lisa Thornton


Sometimes the simplest things we do for our children are also the healthiest. Cuddling, stroking and kissing your children may seem like a simple pleasure, but touch is essential to normal health and development and through touch, the first seeds of love, security and bonding between parent and child are born.

Touch is as important to infants and children as eating and sleeping. Babies need touch to survive and thrive and those who don't get it are often left with significant, lifelong emotional and psychological problems.

Almost every pediatrician has seen a cold, distant, unattached mother whose baby isn't gaining weight. Under the loving care of the hospital nurses, the baby miraculously gains weight only to go home and again fail to thrive. The mother provides food but not love, and the child's poor weight gain is due to psychological deprivation, not nutritional deprivation.

The growing area of child and infant massage is helping parents harness the healing power of touch. Massage has many benefits that have been proven scientifically. In pre-term infants, massage can increase weight gain, decrease anxiety and improve the baby's clinical and developmental course. It can help soothe colicky babies and can improve mother-child interaction, especially in mothers with post-partum depression. Massage relieves muscle tension and stress, increases circulation, aids digestion and has positive effects on the respiratory system. There is even evidence that it helps to decrease aggression in adolescents with conduct disorder.

Maria Reyes is a pediatric occupational therapist at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, a certified infant massage instructor and a licensed massage therapist. Reyes often incorporates massage therapy into her treatment plan. She says it relaxes the parents as well as the baby.

Babies who are sick are often touched a lot, but the touch has a specific purpose (feeding, bathing, dressing, doing therapy). Massage provides an opportunity for parents to spend time with their sick child doing something that is enjoyable and has important therapeutic and psychological benefits. "This kind of touch is just for touch," Reyes says.

The skin is the largest organ in the body and every inch of it has nerve endings that detect touch. Through massage therapy parents can nurture their children while also providing important health benefits.

Reyes encourages parents to read their baby's signals and to change pace and pressure based on the child's tolerance. She emphasizes that massage therapy isn't just for sick children. Healthy children can benefit, too.

Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children's Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at


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