When introduced to the idea of massage therapy for children, people generally ask the same 3 questions: What does it look like? How much does it cost? What is the purpose?
Adults understand why other adults would need massage therapy. It feels good, can help reduce stress, assist in the return to normal function after an injury, but how does that translate to kids? Many adults believe kids don’t have any stress, and that the implementation of regular massage for children is unnecessary. I don’t agree. I remember what it was like to be a child. I was the oldest sibling, so I had to set a good example (stressful). I was a bit on the chubby side, so I was constantly being told I needed to watch my weight (stressful). We moved several times, so for years I felt like I was perpetually the new kid in school, yep, that was stressful too. There’s also the social pressures that we faced as students that we may long have forgotten, but, unfortunately the children of today are still living it, and to a much greater extent than we ever did thanks to the digital age. Stress can manifest in many different ways including sore neck and shoulder muscles, headaches, grinding of the teeth, and constipation.
Massage therapy has been proven to help relieve constipation (1), a very common occurrence in children (2). The abdomen can be a very sensitive area, especially for a child who regularly experiences constipation, so it is important to approach the treatment with sensitivity and respect to the child’s boundaries. Usually the therapist will place their hands over the childs, so that it is the child’s own hands that are touching them, or demonstrate on a doll, and have the parent perform the massage. This can be done over clothing without compromising the effectiveness of the treatment. The child is comfortably positioned in a half sitting position propped up by pillows, usually on a mat on the floor.
Like treatment for adults, treatments for children will be modified according to the needs of the child as well as the restrictions of the environment in which the session is taking place. The session described above would most likely be taking place with an otherwise healthy child in a private practice setting. A session with a child in a hospital bed with an IV, port, or other medical equipment would look quite different.
The treatment for a child with a critical illness, who is bound to a hospital bed, is more likely to be about comfort and pain management. Our bodies have different reactions to different stimuli. Pain generally causes a ‘fight or flight’ reaction associated with the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Pleasurable sensations, like foods we enjoy the taste of or comforting touch from a loved one generally lull the body into a ‘rest and restore’ mode associated with the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). In this situation, the simplest way to have the PNS have a pain minimizing effect on the body is to have a parent or someone the child feels close to instructed by an RMT on how to massage the hands and feet and possibly scalp of the child.(3,4) These areas are easily accessible, and require minimal repositioning of the child.
Getting a parent involved in the treatment allows the parent to feel like they are part of the treatment of their child, not just a helpless observer. It also allows the parent to have the capability of performing the treatment as it is needed. The parent will feel comfortable providing the massage for their child and doesn’t need to depend on the massage therapist to do all of the massage, only needing to follow up with the therapist at regular intervals to ensure that proper techniques are being used. This saves the family the time and money of having to spend extra time with the RMT.
This brings us to the ever popular question of cost. Massage therapy, in the province of Ontario, is a regulated health profession and is covered to some extent by most extended health care insuranceplans. If a spouse is covered by the plan, then the children are usually covered as well. Check with your own insurance company to be certain. The pricing of massage therapy differs depending on geography (generally rates are higher in urban areas, than rural areas), the qualifications of the therapist (seasoned therapists with years of experience and additional training in specialties can charge more than a freshly graduated RMT), and the local massage therapy association (the RMTAO here in Ontario). The RMTAO posts suggested rates on their website that provide a guideline on what RMTs should be charging.
This is my chosen profession, and while I am monetarily compensated for my time, the money is not my motivation. Assisting in the relief of pain in children, helping parents (whether natural or adopted) to bond with their child, helping to create successful bedtime routines and seeing the smiles that result from these is why I love this profession, and want everyone to know just how much kids really can benefit from massage therapy.
In closing, kids need it just as much as us adults do, and if we massage them there’s a good chance they will massage us!
1. Lämås K, Lindholm L, Stenlund H, Engström B, Jacobsson C. Effects of abdominal massage in management of constipation—A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Nursing Studies. 2009 Jun 30;46(6):759-67.
2 . Issenman R M, Hewson S, Pirhonen D, Taylor W, Tirosh A. Are chronic digestive complaints the result of abnormal dietary patterns? Am J Dis Child. 1987;141:679–682. [PubMed]
3.Fazeli MS, Pourrahmat MM, Liu M, Guan L, Collet JP. The Effect of Head Massage on the Regulation of the Cardiac Autonomic Nervous System: A Pilot Randomized Crossover Trial. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2016 Jan 1;22(1):75-80.
4.Guan L, Collet JP, Yuskiv N, Skippen P, Brant R, Kissoon N. The effect of massage therapy on autonomic activity in critically ill children. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2014 Dec 21;2014.