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Parenting: Growing in Good Health

A Touch of Love

By Troya Yoder

"I think the benefit to me as a mother is the connection we developed as I massaged my daughter's little legs and we looked into each other's eyes. She would relax and fall asleep and I would feel like a successful mom."

Sara* had been crying for the first three years of her life when Peg Farlow met her. The child's cerebral palsy limited her motor skills. She was never still, rolling around the therapy room, her legs kicking in the air. It was easy to see why mother and child had difficulty bonding.

Farlow, a licensed massage therapist and speech/language pathologist in Alabama, took a deep breath and began to work her magic.

Farlow is the creator of the innovative Touch to T.E.A.C.H. program, which instructs parents of special needs children in the basics of infant massage. The results are stunning.

"Many children who have special needs never experience the vital bonding and attachment that actually stimulates brain development and forms the basis of a healthy parent/child relationship," she says. "Positive interaction and responses create positive learning experiences."

From India, with love

For many cultures, the tradition of infant massage is as old as the culture itself, passed down lovingly from generation to generation.

But the United States was not introduced to infant massage until the 1970s, when Vimala McClure returned here after working in a small orphanage in Northern India.

In her book, Infant Massage: a Handbook for Loving Parents, McClure writes,"I thought about all the children I had known in India and how loving, warm, and playful they were despite their so-called disadvantages ... Perhaps, I thought, they are able to be so loving, so relaxed and natural because they have been loved like this as infants, and infants have been loved this way in India for thousands of years."

When McClure's first child was born in 1976, she began a daily massage routine in which she combined the ancient methods she had learned in India, with Swedish massage, acupressure and reflexology. She saw massage with her son "not only as a tool for relaxation, but as a key part of our communication with one another."

In 1978, at the request of childbirth educators, McClure developed a program to train instructors on infant massage. In 1986, she established the International Association of Infant Massage "to promote nurturing touch and communication through training, education, and research...". The IAIM has 27 chapters worldwide, training over 10,000 instructors in the United States alone.

Vimala McClure's techniques and book are the basis for virtually all infant massage programs in the United States, including those adapted by Peg Farlow for use with special needs children.

Indian milking, squeeze and twist...

While McClure agrees "that any affectionate touch is beneficial to babies," she adds, "infant massage as a regular routine conveys special and specific benefits that normal affectionate interaction doesn't necessarily provide, both physiological and emotional, for baby, caregiver and the relationship itself."

Much of the routine involves firm, but gentle, stroking of the infant's skin. With names such as "Indian Milking," "Sun Moon" and "Water Wheel," the strokes stimulate the gastrointestinal, circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems, and teach the baby how to relax parts of her body on command. No easy task, but one that will serve baby well through adulthood.

McClure stresses that infant massage not be thought of as a treatment done to a baby, but as an affectionate interaction experienced with a baby. Eye contact and verbalization cues are just as important as the strokes themselves. Gazing deeply into each other's eyes, softly singing lullabies while stroking are all an expression of love to an infant.

"I think the benefit to me as a mother is the connection we developed as I massaged my daughter's little legs, and we looked into each other's eyes," explains Michelle Smith, who took an infant massage class when her daughter was 10 weeks old. "She would relax and fall asleep and I would feel like a successful mom."

Backed by research

Scientific research into the importance of early attachment and infant stimulation confirms what older cultures have maintained for thousands of years — touch is as important as food and water and babies need it to survive — literally.

Much of the research into touch has been done at the University of Miami's Touch Research Institute (TRI). Established in 1992, the TRI is represented by a group of researchers from Duke,

Harvard and other distinguished universities, devoted to studying the scientific and medical applications of touch.

Over 70 research studies have found that massage therapy benefits infants and children of all ages in a variety of ways including: increased weight gain in premature infants, strengthened immune system, improved motor skills and muscle tone, enhanced mental function, relief of gassiness and colic, and enhanced circulation and respiration.

"Hopefully, parents will accept infant massage into the American way of life in the same way that Lamaze childbirth classes and infant carriers have been accepted," writes Dr. Stephen Berman, M.D., in the preface to McClure's book. Berman, the chief of general academic pediatrics at the Children's Hospital in Denver, Colorado and Vice President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has supported McClure's techniques from the beginning.

Long-lasting love

But infant massage is something of a misnomer. This bond can affect the parent-child relationship for life. Multiple studies have shown that the types and quality of attachments infants form in their early life go on to affect their relationships and types of adults they become later in life.

"This is no small thing in a culture that is increasingly concerned with children who are showing attachment disorders which lead to violence, drug addiction, and sociopathic behavior," McClure says.

Just ask the mother of little crying Sara, now 4 years old. After a single session of instruction, and additional help from an infant massage video, Sara's mother reports that her daughter loves to have her legs and back massaged after her bath. "This is the only time I have with Sara when she is still!"

Fighting back tears, Peg Farlow is pleased to see that bonding and attachment for this mother and child is beginning - four years after birth.

* Name has been changed.

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