“It is through our hands that we speak to the child. That we communicate. Touch is the first language, understanding comes long after feeling.” Frederick Leboyer
Our skin is the largest organ of our bodies and can occupy a space as large as two square metres. Newborn’s skin can account for as much as four percent of their total body weight. Newborn’s skin is very lightly attached where the dermis and the epidermis meet, making it vulnerable to tearing at this point, causing bruising. This is why massage classes start at eight weeks.
The wonderful news is that reflexology can be given from birth. When I created The Children’s Reflexology Programme, supporting the newborn child was a priority for me as I had worked with so many and knew how much they loved their treatments and how beneficial it was for them at this important time.
The skin contains many different nerve receptors that alert us to pain, changes in temperature and touch.
The nerves relating to touch are called c-tactile afferents and they develop while the baby is growing in its mother’s womb.
Some of these touch receptors have already developed by eight weeks of gestation and many, many more will have developed by the end of the first trimester.
New studies show that babies can not only detect someone touching their mother’s tummy but they can actually distinguish between their mother’s touch and that of a stranger or even their father. This implies that touch is so important that it is a priority in the development of the foetus.
According to another study, the optimal speed of a caress, or light touch, is between 3 and 5cm per second implying that evolution has predetermined what feels good. Try touching/massaging your own arm and notice the speed you use – I was fascinated to discover this optimal speed was what I instinctively used when stroking my daughter’s hair or massaging her feet during a breastfeeding snuggle. It is interesting that if we know this to be the optimal speed for feel-good touch then faster and more agitated stroking, such as when we are stressed or anxious, is likely to be a non-verbal cue that things are not well.
Positive, nurturing touch will release the hormone oxytocin into our blood stream. This hormone is often referred to as the “love hormone” and is such a powerful chemical response that it can be released in third parties who happen to witness a positive moment of connection from a distance.
We are all wired for touch, it is a primal instinct to reach out and touch someone we care about when they are in pain, hug our child when they cry, kiss a hurt better.
For babies touch is vitally important. As Frederick Leboyer, the much-respected French obstetrician said, it is a child’s first language – it not only defines their world but is also essential for the development of their brain. More importantly the correct sort of touch is actually required to develop healthy, happy, connected children and to ensure that they grow up to become healthy, happy, connected adults.
A study into premature and full term babies that were given gentle touch showed that the premature babies had a reduced response compared to the full term babies. However when this group of premature babies was compared with other premature babies that had not been given gentle touch the results showed that their response was increased compared to those babies that hadn’t been given this support.
So the more gentle contact and gentle loving touch we give our children the more their bodies respond to the sensation of gentle touch.
Although we are wired for touch we need gentle loving touch to strengthen our touch receptors. The Children’s Reflexology Programme teaches parents how to use non-invasive gentle techniques that support both parents and children.
We know from the research performed on baby monkeys taken from their mothers that when given a choice of food or comforting soft touch they chose starvation over not having touch. The awful images of children who suffered from severe neglect in Romanian orphanages reveal what happens to children’s development without touch. Scans show that parts of their brain never developed, resulting in their being unable to make attachments or feel connected; living in a persistent state of isolation, folding themselves up as small as they could become and rocking.
Touch is love, it is a baby’s first introduction to love, starting as early as eight weeks into their gestational journey. It is connection at our very primal source.
Without safe touch babies struggle to move beyond the very first hurdle of attachment and remain in a constant state of fight flight and freeze as the amygdala perceives the environment as too dangerous to relax.
I love teaching parents or carers to support frightened children – by using the deeply relaxing techniques it is possible to create times when their fight, flight and freeze reflexes can be relaxed. Trust can never be built on a foundation of fear and uncertainty.
The brain develops in a specific order starting with the brainstem, where the amygdala is, and then moving on to the limbic system, which is about making connections with people, and then into the cortical brain where we discover the world.
Fortunately, babies are able to make strong connections with more than one person and this is one of the important values of social groups for parents. Parenting isn’t always easy and none of us have all the answers. This is why it is important for parents to grow their own village; for support for themselves but also for their baby and his future place within the community.
The Children’s Reflexology Programme is all about creating connections, bonds and community, and instructors run classes for exactly this reason. The programme is also hugely beneficial for mothers who may be struggling with post natal depression and have a real sense of disconnection since becoming a mother.
Touch is central to parenting, from early conception until, well, forever really.
We never grow out of the connection and comfort that comes from touching and being touched.
Teaching our children to touch and be touched appropriately is teaching them to be human. Our evolution is built on touch because it is part of what we need to thrive and what our children need to grow and develop.
The Children’s Reflexology Programme brings complementary therapy into homes ensuring that everyone has access to the benefits and the skills making touch part of the everyday family routine.
Let’s ensure that we don’t replace human touch with the cold swipe of a screen or oxytocin with dopamine.
Teach your children to build their touch receptors in the same way we teach them to grow their intelligence, their bodies and their friendships – by practising. We can all practise right now on those we love and those who need love.