What Is Touch Therapy and Why Your Kid Might Need It

Our kids can be deeply impacted by our increasingly chaotic world. Learn how touch can help them and their parents navigate it together.

Adult gives a baby a massage on a soft blanket
Photo: Manu Padilla/Stocksy

As a nurse, I care for kids with cancer. As they navigate their journeys to well-being, these kids are still living their lives. They are laughing and crying. They are making mistakes and learning from them. They are growing up and, like every other kid, they experience the physical and emotional consequences of bumping up against life's challenges.

But, unfortunately, the chemotherapy which we administer to them adds greatly to their burden. These kids often experience severe pain and may suffer nerve damage and constipation too. They and their parents often struggle to find the comfort of sleep amid a steady supply of beeps that have become a staple of our modern medical paradigm.

Fortunately, many of these kids also benefit from the healing hands of certified massage therapists and acupuncturists a few times a week. These professionals offer an entirely different path to healing.

You may have noticed #babymassage trending on TikTok, but skilled practitioners have been employing different forms of touch therapy for thousands of years in non-Western cultures, including China and India. Parents can also bring these cultural healing traditions into their home, which I've started doing with my own kids too. Here's how experts say parents everywhere can use touch therapy to help their kids through common maladies.

What Is Touch Therapy?

Touch therapy, which involves touching a person's body in specific ways to promote a sense of well-being, comes in various forms and can be inspired by different traditions. Commonly practiced forms are massage therapy and acupressure, a practice that uses the fingers, palms, elbows, or feet to apply pressure to acupoints on the body. Both these therapies can be employed by parents at a basic level using only their hands and a little instruction.

How Touch Therapy Can Help Kids

Touch is "an essential human need," says Marcia Degelman, a certified massage therapist who has been practicing massage therapy for over 30 years and currently works with the pediatric population at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in San Francisco. Not only is it the first sense to develop in utero, it also "lasts a lifetime, unlike sight and hearing, which can diminish with age."

Degelman has developed a practice of gentle touch along the traditional acupuncture meridians that she has seen ease the pain and discomfort associated with cancer treatment.

"If touch is structured, has an intent to relax, to relieve pain, or to facilitate healing, it is therapeutic," explains Degelman.

At home, if your child complains of digestive issues, is experiencing mild discomfort such as a headache, or expresses feelings of anxiety, they might benefit from touch therapy. It has been shown to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and encourage healthy sleep as well. (This shouldn't be a replacement for medical care, but a soothing addition.)

Touch Therapy Tips for Parents

Touch therapy can trend with parents and their children at home just as effectively as it trends on TikTok and with her brave pediatric clients in the hospital, says Degelman. But where do parents begin?

Start simple

A good place to start is acupressure. "Acupressure is safe, gentle, easy to learn, and fun to practice," says Robyn Adcock, DACM, LAc, MS, a San Francisco-based specialist in pediatric acupressure and acupuncture.

Adcock stresses that parents naturally know how to touch their children from a heart-centered place, so learning acupressure simply helps them add another component to their healing toolkit. "It's important for parents to know that they are not going to hurt their child by choosing the wrong points," says Adcock.

Press lightly

Touch therapy like acupressure doesn't need to be strong to be effective, and Adcock indicates that as little as five grams of pressure is enough to stimulate an acupoint. You can imagine the weight of a nickel on your fingertip to understand what 5 grams of pressure feels like. Often, "the goal of acupressure is to help a child relax deeply into themselves," says Adcock. "They should never experience discomfort."

Listen with your hands

Think of touch therapy as touch-based communication. It is far more effective when the parent imagines "listening with their hands," says Adcock. Listening, in this case, includes feeling if a muscle gets tighter or softer while pressing or noticing if a child takes a deeper breath. When children feel physically "heard" they feel safer and more comfortable, which initiates a healing response.

Remember, less is always more

Kids can be easily overstimulated by sensory input, and this can create unwanted outcomes that affect digestion, breathing, sleep, and mood. Touch therapy can be helpful in calming a child's nervous system, but it needs to be applied in the right dose to be most effective. Adcock suggests that "for babies, five minutes of pressure once a day is plenty. For toddlers, that could increase to about 10 minutes. For older children and adolescents, between 10-20 minutes is usually enough."

Look for the big breath

Acupressure can lead the body out of sympathetic mode (fight or flight) and into parasympathetic mode (rest and digest). According to Adcock, this shift is often signaled during a session by a deep and spontaneous yawn or sigh which she calls "the big breath." After this happens, a child will breathe more deeply and often have more relaxed muscles and facial features.

"The big breath is a clear sign that the treatment has been wildly successful and that you can quietly end the session and allow your child to continue relaxing, perhaps by darkening the room and putting a blanket over them," says Adcock.

Make it fun

Touch therapy can also be a rewarding form of communication and play with your kids. One effective way to do this is to try what Degelman calls the "storytime massage." Think of it as "planting a garden along either side of the child's spine, with circular strokes and asking the child what they would like to plant."

Let your kid supply details to the action from their imagination. They can choose what kind of flowers they desire to blossom. Gentle fingertip tapotement (a Swedish massage technique using rhythmic fast percussion) on both sides of the spine can represent a percussive rainfall. A soothing flat hand can represent the sun shining down upon the newly planted crop.

"Ask the child to imagine the warmth of the sun, moving gradually up the back. Harvest the flowers and present the imaginary bouquet to the child. Ask the child to smell the flowers, breathing in through the nose, and asking them to breathe out through their mouth," suggests Degelman.

If flowers aren't an interest, you and your child can imagine your own unique story through soothing touch as well.

Use Touch Therapy for Bonding

Touch is an opportunity for parents to bond with their kids and that's a reason I decided to try it out for myself. A few nights ago, I was at a standoff with my 7-year-old daughter. There was reading homework to be done. She was not interested and the tensions were high between us. Instead of pushing the work, though, I offered the alternative of a story on her back. As my fingertips danced lightly off her skin, telling the spontaneous tale of a tiny mouse running through a forest, I felt my daughter's body relax into my legs. She closed her eyes as a secret smile appeared on her face. Eventually, she released the deep, healing sigh that Adcock predicted. There would be no reading that night, but a story was still told—just in a new and special way.

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