The power of touch is a compelling force that can open doors in the mind of children who suffer from disorders of attachment. Infants and children who lack healthy attachment capacities tend to exhibit a variety of atypical behaviors. One serious challenge is the reluctance to cuddle or be hugged. Infant and child massage is a powerful tool that can begin to establish a child’s ability to be close to a caregiver and enjoy the feeling of touch.
Children can experience an interruption of attachment formation as the result of medical problems that interfere with access to parents or caregivers, trauma, abuse, or neglect. Hospitalization of children or parents is one example of an unfortunate situation that can prevent the parent child bond from forming. Prolonged stays of newborns in incubators can dramatically reduce exposure to human touch and eye to eye contact that are the foundations of attachment formation.
Trauma is another event that can interfere with healthy attachment formation. Even children from stable and loving homes may experience an interruption in attachment formation as the result of a traumatic event such as serious accident or abuse. Neglect can also seriously impair attachment formation. Children who are placed through adoption or foster care programs tend to be at a much greater risk of disorder of attachment.
Attachment disorders express in a variety of ways. The new DSM5 provides diagnostic codes for RAD, or Reactive Attachment Disorder, and DSED, or Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder. While many cases of disordered attachment are blends of these variations, a child with RAD may tend toward withdrawn behavior while DSED is associated with an unnatural tendency to approach and interact with others, especially strangers.
Treatment of disordered attachment including RAD and DSED involves complex attention to a myriad of developmental processes. Children must learn to accept safe touch by a caregiver. They must develop a sense of trust in the world. These young ones must learn the rhythm and pace of normal social interaction.
A child’s ability to connect with others is limited by attachment development. Relationships with family, friends, and community draw on healthy attachment. Compassion and the ability to follow social rules and maintain lawful behavior also draw upon capacities for attachment. As a result, promoting attachment is the critical focus of treatment and intervention for children with development delays or interruptions of attachment.
While treatment is complex and prolonged, massage therapy offers a unique opportunity to address multiple developmental pathways simultaneously. Parents can sit close to the child, leaning over to establish eye to eye contact. Firm but gentle touch can promote a child’s sense of safety. Gentle crooning and words of love and encouragement can stimulate a child’s sense of confidence.
Nurturing and compassionate touch can stimulate multiple brain centers. When parents incorporate aromatherapy and beautiful music into the therapeutic infant or child massage process, little ones have the opportunity to develop many new neural pathways that support human connection.
The tactile kinesthetic stimulation of touch stimulates the brain’s sensory processing centers. Auditory neural pathways process the sound of caregiver speech and encouragement as well as soothing music. Olfactory neural pathways respond to the sweet aromas of natural oils or aromatherapy. The brain recognizes movement and proprioception as little arms and legs are gently moved as part of the therapeutic process. Social and visual neural pathways support the eye gazing beween parent and child.
Parents and caregivers must begin slowly with infant or child massage as a pathway to promoting attachment of children with RAD or DSED. Little ones who are unfamilar or resistant to touch require time to adjust. Over time, children will begin to enjoy and eventually request healing touch and child massage.
The ritual of infant massage can naturally extend into normal day to day activities. Once a child accepts touch through massage, parents can begin to incorporate simple holding, cuddling, and rocking as part of daily care. In addition to cuddling and rocking little ones, parents can also gently rub a child’s head, back, or feet as part of daily nurturing human contact.
While infant and child massage is not a stand along intervention for attachment disorders, the power of touch can cut through many barriers. By intentionally incorporating gentle and nurturing communication, eye gazing, and aromatherapy, caregivers can stimulate powerful neuropastic capacities of the child’s brain. Children will respond to this rich and nurturing interaction by creating new neural pathways that support healthy attachment.
One massage, one month of massage, and even one year of massage is not likely to fully correct a serious disorder of attachment in a young child. Over time, however, the sum total of all attachment supportive therapies will contribute to new neural pathways of the brain that will give children the power to be appropriately social with family and strangers, feel compassion and empathy for others, and establish and maintain healthy relationships with others.
Parents of children with healthy attachment can still promote infant attachment with healing infant and child massage. Attachment Parenting is one child rearing philosophy that is particularly consistent with the healing and nurturing practice of infant massage.
Want to learn more about infant massage? Check out this book from Amazon. Purchase through the link below and a portion of the proceeds will benefit our sister organization The Orchard Human Services, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit that supports families and children who suffer with attachment challenges.
Darleen Claire is a Parenting Expert with a background in Education, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and Brain-Based Strategies to promote learning and development. She also holds a license as a Massage and Neuromuscular Therapist.