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Fall 2000 Table of Contents
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The Importance of Touch in Parent-Infant Bonding

by Gigi Newton, Teacher Trainer, TSBVI, Texas Deafblind Outreach

Editor's note: In 1992, Gigi Newton, Teacher Trainer with Texas Deafblind Outreach, began to share information with our team about the benefits of massage therapy with children who are deafblind. During this time, Evelyn Guyer, a certified infant massage therapist, had begun to train individuals in the use of Bonding And Relaxation Therapy (BART) and had received a grant to train parents and others to use these techniques with deafblind children. Gigi wrote an article about some of the work being done by Evelyn and others that was published in the July 1992 edition of P.S. News (the Deafblind Outreach newsletter before SEE/HEAR).

Also in 1992, through Gigi and Stacy Shafer, Early Childhood Specialist with Visually Impaired Outreach, we learned about Active Learning theory from Dr. Lilli Nielsen of Denmark. Active Learning focused on providing the child with blindness opportunities to be an active participant in interactions with the environment. This approach benefits children with visual impairments by assisting in the development of body awareness and motor skills, cognitive skills such as comparing and contrasting qualities (heavy, light, soft, hard, smooth, rough, noisy, quiet, vibrating, still, etc.), and choice-making.

In 1997, I attended a session at the National Deafblind Conference in Washington, D.C. titled "Hands: Tools, Sense Organs, Voice", presented by Barbara Miles. Her session focused on the functions of hands in cognitive, linguistic and emotional development for children with deafblindness. In May of 1999, DB-LINK published Barbara's article, "Talking the Language of Hands to Hands." This article (which is available on the DB-LINK website at http://www.tr.wou.edu/dblink/) looks at the role of hands in early development for children with blindness, deafness, and deafblindness, and suggests strategies for facilitating hand development in children with deafblindness.

For the past several years, the Texas Deafblind Outreach team has been discussing the importance of these theories and approaches in the education of children with deafblindness. Developing the tactual sense, body awareness, the use of hands, and establishing bonds of trust between the child and caregiver or instructor are key components in the child's ability to benefit from instruction. This is especially true when the child is severely visually and auditorially impaired, but is also true to some degree for any child with sensory impairments. Many early literacy and learning skills require the development of the tactual sense, the awareness and use of hands and fingers, the child's willingness to trust an instructor who guides his/her hands to explore objects and people in the environment.

In the summer or early fall of 2001, Texas Deafblind Outreach plans to offer a workshop for parents and members of their children's' educational teams that emphasizes these approaches. Future editions of SEE/HEAR will also feature articles on these topics to help you decide if this workshop might be beneficial for you. Here we are reprinting Gigi's 1992 article about infant massage and the importance of touch in parent-infant bonding. Touch is a powerful way to communicate.

Touch from another human being can be a nourishing medicine or a damaging poison. Without words, we can show affection by giving a hug or by stroking a child's arm, or we can show disapproval by using our hands to restrain a child's hand. The importance of touch for a child with deafblindness is apparent. The child will use this sense extensively to develop communication skills, to help orient in different environments, and most importantly to connect socially with others. This article focuses on the power of gentle touching and suggests ways in which touch can make a positive change in your life and the life of your child.

What does caring and loving touch do for infants? It is a necessary part of developing attachment between the child and parents. It is the beginning of communication between you and your child. Because you make him feel secure, the child learns to trust you and develops an emotional tie to you. The child's response to those feelings of security deepens your feelings of love and protectiveness towards him. It is what Dr. T. Barry Brazelton refers to as the parent and child "falling in love" with each other.

The most important thing parents can do to help develop this attachment is to first become careful observers of their child and learn how to interpret his needs. A newborn communicates his needs or feelings to his parents primarily through crying. When a baby's cry is responded to quickly and warmly, the child begins to develop a bond or attachment to the caregiver.

When a child is not responded to he does not feel safe. As a result his sleeping, eating, and social interactions can all be affected. According to research findings, if a baby knows a caregiver will respond, the baby begins to reserve crying for more specialized needs. This finding disputes the belief that babies are spoiled by parents who respond every time to their child's crying.

Talking to a baby while responding to his cry lets him know that the caregiver understands his feelings. Over time he begins to be comforted by the voice and to understand that words are a way of communicating. This situation changes somewhat with children with deafblindness.

Babies with deafblindness will need to have more input through other senses such as touch, smell, etc. because of the information that is lost to them through their decreased vision and hearing. Try cuddling the child against your chest while you are speaking or holding his hand or foot against your cheek or chest to let him feel the vibrations of your voice. Use a consistent signal, like soft pats on the back or stroking his forehead to communicate your empathy.

The crying behaviors of infants with hearing, vision, and /or neurological problems may be different from an infant without disabilities. It may take more observation to understand what their cry means and how to respond to them. Parents might try to list times when the baby cries and note any patterns in the baby's environment that might be causing him distress. If all the child's basic needs (i.e., food, dry diapers, companionship, etc.) have been met and the child continues to cry, the parent may need to look for signs of over-stimulation. Some of these signs are: turning the body, face or eyes away; closing his eyes; arching the back; spitting up; rapid shallow breathing; changing color; hiccupping.

It the child is over-stimulated you may need to try some inventive approaches to consoling your baby. Preventively, you can try to keep your baby's daily schedule as consistent as possible. You can make the environment calming by dimming the lights, dropping the noise level, and reducing social stimulation. You may also try things like placing him in his travel chair on the washing machine so he is lulled by the vibrations. Taking rides in the car, running a vacuum cleaner, anything that produces a steady vibrating motion or monotonous sound, can also help him to relax or calm. You will have to be creative in finding the type of calming actions that work best for your child.

Moms and dads also bond with their babies by kissing, cuddling, and making eye contact. Babies with vision, hearing, or motor impairments may not receive as much feedback from this type of physical contact because of their impairment. Ask your Vision Teacher to help you decide how your baby uses his vision and how to adjust the lighting in his environment to maximize the use of his vision. For example, the baby might see your face better if the light came from behind him so he does not have to look into a glaring light when he turns to you. To keep from startling a baby who may not hear your voice, a "signature" scent (hand lotion or perfume) may provide a cue that you are near.

Infants with seizure disorders or motor impairments may not respond well to touching and holding. Certain types of touch may actually trigger a seizure in some children with seizure disorders because it is stressful. Some children are tactilely defensive or they have abnormal muscle tone. When a baby does not show a typical response to a parent's attention the parent may interpret the baby's response as rejection. The parents may begin to hold the child less often. However, the child's atypical response to touch may relate to muscle tone rather than to feelings about his parents. With these children, it is critical for the parents to learn to touch their child in a way that is acceptable and pleasurable to the child.

Physical therapists and occupational therapists can help parents discover what types of physical touch their child can tolerate and learn to enjoy. They can also make suggestions about textures (for clothing, bedding, etc.) that may be more pleasing to the child. Parents may want to start with a few minutes of touching, and increase the time gradually as the child can tolerate it. Often children prefer firm pressure on their arms and legs as opposed to light stroking. When using light strokes move in the direction of the hair growth, not against it. Avoid applying pressure on the spine. As the child becomes comfortable with being touched he will become more comfortable touching things and people in his environment. If a child does not enjoy touching, he will have a difficult time learning to explore his surroundings.

In Touching by Montagu we learn that holding and rocking a baby has physiological and emotional benefits. Touching increases the baby's cardiac output, promotes respiration that in turn discourages lung congestion and helps the baby's gastrointestinal function. The movement of rocking often helps in digestion and absorption of food.

During normal home activities such as diapering, bathing and bedtime, incorporate a few minutes of gentle touching. Rubbing on baby lotion, cuddling before bedtime or massaging arms and legs during a bath can add an extra measure of caring to ordinary events. Sometimes these caring touches can even make a bothersome event pleasurable.

One special technique of touching that is being used to increase bonding is infant massage. Infant massage is a more structured way of touching. Many hospitals use infant massage with premature infants. Current studies seem to suggest infant massage may enhance a premature baby's physical growth and development. Infant massage is something you do with your baby as opposed to something that is done to your baby. It is a way for parents to connect with their child on a special level. Massage can help parents learn the way their baby's body looks and feels when he is tensed or relaxed; the look and feel of a gassy stomach; the difference between pain and tension.

Resources and References

If you want information about infant massage training contact: The International Association of Infant Massage Instructors, E. Micki Riddle, R.N., Ph.D., Executive Director, 1891 Goodyear Avenue, Suite 622, Ventura, CA 93008 or phone (805) 644-8524. There is also a website; go to http://www.iaim-us.com/. The following books can be ordered through the website, by calling toll-free (888) 448-9489 or by e-mailing IAIM4US@aol.com


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