Reclaiming the power of touch…safely

Touch is a fundamental human need. Healthy touch in babyhood helps brain development throughout infancy and beyond. Healthy touch is calming, loving and pampering. Healthy touch at the end of life helps reassure someone that they are not alone, and can help relieve anxiety and agitation. The key with touch is to make sure it is healthy and appropriate, and is always given with the receiver’s permission. This keeps you safe too.

Sadly, headlines sometimes include instances of touch being severely misappropriated. Resulting actions and legislation taken to try and prevent these have in part contributed, through fear, to people losing touch, literally, with their innate knowing around the power of touch. In addition, the fast pace of life and the use of technology and machinery, particularly in unfamiliar situations, can confuse this inner knowledge.

Healthy touch is the common denominator in the services I offer. Infant massage (IAIM Programme) is where it all starts – teaching a parent to massage their tiny baby offers the child the greatest gift of nurturing touch and communication. A baby who learns that their parent respects whether they want to be massaged, and reads their cues accordingly, learns to recognise as they grow up whether someone’s touch is appropriate. I came late to baby massage training, but it resonated deeply with the skills I had learnt through Indian Head Massage and as a Soul Midwife, and it made perfect sense to start the gift of touch early in a baby’s life, as has already been happening in Asia for thousands of years. The juxtaposition of offering healthy touch at the beginning, throughout and at the end of life feels deliciously perfect!

You probably know that non-human animals often lick their offspring after birth – but did you know that “licking them in to shape” is not just about cleaning them, it is all about “activating such sustaining systems as the genito-urinary and gastrointestinal systems, and in part the respiratory system.” (Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin by Ashley Montagu.) Those animals that are not licked (or given the same stimulation artificially) simply fail to thrive. Human birth involves prolonged uterine contractions, and Montagu suggests that this starts the same activation process in human babies. It is well recognised that human babies’ brains are not fully developed at birth – in fact the first three months after birth are often called the Fourth Trimester. One of the most important and effective ways of ensuring that the brain develops healthily is through loving touch. It also helps hugely in the bonding process between parent and child, leading to a secure attachment which, as recognised by Dr John Bowlby, the pioneer of attachment theory, will hold that baby in good stead throughout life. Sir Richard Bowlby, his son, is the patron of the International Association of Infant Massage.

In our daily lives, we need to create opportunities to stay in touch (forgive the pun) with healthy touch. Some of us are lucky to find it within our families – holding hands with a loved one, rubbing tired feet, a back scratch, a cuddle with the newest baby and so on. It can also be helpful to invest in a hands-on therapy such as Indian Head Massage, where you set aside time to stop everything, and surrender to the touch of a therapist’s hands. We are so used to “multi-tasking” (or as my partner calls it, doing lots of things badly at the same time…!) that it can feel a bit scary to actually book in a session where you do nothing but sit and receive. I believe your body, mind and soul will thank you. One of the delights of Indian Head Massage is that you remain clothed, and I don’t use oils, so you can return quickly to your pursuits of the day if you wish.

Towards the end of life, many people feel vulnerable, and often appreciate being treated with great kindness and gentleness. In Soul Midwifery, one of our most valuable skills is that of gentle touch. I teach gentle touch as part of my TLC workshop. It’s not massage, and anyone can learn to do it, but it can be wonderfully calming and soothing when people are feeling anxious or agitated. As with baby massage, permission is always sought. Throughout the sessions we check in that gentle touch is being enjoyed, and show people how to stop us if they’ve had enough. I have beautiful stories of people who have been offered, and accepted,  gentle touch, who afterwards say something like, “It’s been years since anyone held my hand.” To be able to offer that loving gesture at a time when someone doesn’t have long left is truly a gift, to the giver as much as the receiver.

I believe with all my heart that we are meant to give and receive touch in a safe, healthy and loving way. It is up to us all to reclaim the power of touch, and not miss out on this beautiful connection. We cannot allow fear to make us reticent about touch. We need to tap back into our innate wisdom – we all know how to touch safely, lovingly and respectfully. Just do it…!

I have another story. An old man lay dying and wished to see his small grandchildren. Their parents were concerned that a) the children might be upset and b) they might hurt Grandad. He was insistent, and eventually the parents brought in the children, who, as one, climbed up onto Grandad’s bed, snuggling with him, stroking his face, and telling him they loved him. It was perfect for everyone. The lesson is that children just know – and we were all children once…

One final bit of science – studies have shown that healthy touch leads to oxytocin (the “feelgood” hormone) release in the brain, not only for the receiver, but also for the giver, and even observers if there are any…that is indeed food for thought. You can read more here and here

Massage anyone?! Comments welcomed below
Wendy x

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