In the gentlemen’s game of fencing, the swordsman wins who first marks the opponent with his weapon. The masked men simply remark, Touché! as if to say, You got me, as if a touch was enough to equal the “kill.” The power of touch, however, lies more in its ability to heal not hurt, which makes sense since skin is the largest organ of the human body. Nurturing touch (hugs, kisses, pats on the back, hand squeezes, massage, etc.) improves circulation & range of motion, lessens stress, lowers blood pressure & shortens healing time. It also helps ward off illness and depression. But, for the touch deprived, the opposite is also true: those who do not get a sufficient share are 40% more prone to disease and emotional dysfunction. Thankfully, more nursing homes are starting to incorporate tactile stimulation and caring touch into their programs to increase patients’ longevity, as well as to promote a “sense of security.”
Remember when we were kids and we joked that Sr. Mary Immaculata or any crabby old lady just needed a good--shall we say some TLC or personal attention? It turns out there is truth to the notion. Women, physiologically-speaking, have skin that is more sensitive than men's, and we "experience a higher level of stress" because our body produces "lower levels of the chemicals that combat stress." This phenomenon is partly why, in my next life, I am going to marry a swing-dancing sous chef masseuse; of course, once I have my surefooted gourmet vegetarian cook, I will probably crave the cheeseburgers he never allows me to eat (and which I rarely touch now—maybe once every five years). It may make you snicker to hear me say this but I have a real passion for touching. It goes deeper than my love for good food and even great words because I have witnessed the miraculous growth and development that positive touch promotes. (I am all about touching myself--and you, if you will let me;-)
Almost 17-years-old, my son is incredibly strong & healthy (mentally, physically & spiritually), but he was premature at birth. I went into labor right before St. Patrick’s Day when my duedate wasn’t until Easter. Enter Miracle Baby--after almost thirty-six hours of contractions and nearly seven weeks early--weighing in at a mere 4 lbs. 9 ozs. Seamus was little but he scored high on his APGAR test, and he exhibited a tenacious soul but had none of the problems that many premies encounter: his body wasn’t covered in hair (all infants have this in utero but shed it as they develop fully, a mammalian form of warmth), he was breathing on his own, maintaining his birth weight, and he could suckle. We were only in the hospital for two days (they let me stay a second day to nurse him, milk which had to be put in a baby’s bottle to accommodate his tiny mouth), and when he came home with me I was both ecstatic & terrified.
While pregnant I did not read up on pregnancies or giving birth. I actually avoided articles on the subject, although it did nothing to spare me from the people who seemed dead set on sharing their horror stories with me: to hear these women talk, it was a wonder more babies weren’t stillborn and more mothers sliced in two, split from ear to ear in the birthing process.
I had, however, read one article (probably in the doctor’s office, since I was on welfare and the waits were exorbitant) on “infant massage therapy.” Needless to say, once I had this wee baby in my enormous hands, I was afraid I would crush his bones if I hugged him too tightly, but I was equally afraid to have him too far away or out of reach. So every night after his bath, I would put him on a blanket across my bed and “massage” him kind of in the way they train you to give CPR to a child. Using only the first two fingers of each hand, I would apply minimal pressure as I made miniscule circles around his torso (where I knew his vital organs lived—and I wanted to keep it that way!), but I allowed myself to be more vigorous with his hands and feet. And, do you know, that that premie who was in the 5-10th percentile at birth had moved up to the 75th percentile by his first birthday, weighing 25 lbs.? I know that nursing him as long as I was able to made him the strong ox he is today, but I always, also, credit the powers of that loving maternal touch. (Of course, singing to him all the while and praying over him, telling him stories around the clock may have had a hand in his development as well.)
Studies have shown that a soothing touch can trigger the increase of oxytocin levels in the body, which gives a calming effect, just as where physical pain exists, a comforting human touch can alleviate the feeling and act as a “numbing agent.” Clinical studies on infant development have proven that infants who are rocked and lovingly cradled, held more often, grow up to be more confident and less clingy—not to mention less violent--children than those who are not.