The importance of Loving Touch to develop a bond with an adopted child

By Gill Tree, Adoptive Mum and owner of Essentials for Health, London School of Massage

My son arrived in August 2011 at just three years old. My life like any other adoptive parent has been a rollercoaster ride for the last 2 years, but I have to say, it has been the ride of my life and I wouldn’t swap motherhood for anything!

My son is the most incredible little guy who has amazed me in his flexibility and transformation in leaving his foster carer to become my son. He had many challenging behaviours and was the master of manipulation, but is now a shining example of what love and touch can do to heal. He has a wisdom, creativity and empathy beyond his 4 3/4 years and is a teacher for me on a daily basis.

I own a school of massage in London and have been a pioneer in the UK, bringing programmes such as training neonatal nurses Positive Touch, the International Association of Infant Massage Instructors certificate in 1996 and Massage in Schools in 2000.

I am of course therefore a big advocate for giving massage/loving touch to the hurt child. We have the strongest bond any mother and child could have and this has been through massage, sharing baths, cuddling in bed, reverting right back and bottle feeding him allowing him to be my baby.

Massage for a child who is new to your home may be too challenging for both of you. Getting them to keep still is one issue, whilst the intimacy of an oil massage on bare skin in a defended child is completely inappropriate. Loving touch can be brought gradually into your daily lives so that over time it becomes more and more accepted and even demanded!

The route to getting touch more and more mainstream in your family life is like most things with children- through play. Starting with walking round the garden like a teddy bear, and this little piggy went to market will soon build up the trust needed for you to move on to more massage-like stroking. Go cautiously if you are not sure- stroking a foot or hand is wonderful! If children don’t want you to do it to them, get them to do it to you.  As far as the benefits of touch are concerned it doesn’t matter who is the giver and who is the receiver.

Benefits of touch

In infants there is a condition known as marasmus where without loving touch babies can wither away and die. Adults who do not receive loving touch may become withdrawn and anxious.  We can see extremes of this in those with mental illness who may rock themselves for comfort.

In every day life we can all benefit from massage or loving touch to help us cope with the everyday strains and stresses of the twentieth century, but for the newly adopted child loving touch is the fastest route to assisting development of the bond that is vital for the childs’ well being and that all adoptive parents crave.

When one person touches another in a loving way, there is a release in both, of the hormone oxytocin. Well known to be found in abundance in breast feeding mothers, it is the hormone that ensures the bond with, and love for the child is secured. When released through touch in both men and women, it gives us a feeling of well-being and of being nurtured.

Loving touch has other powerful effects on the endocrine (hormone) system. It increases levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. In a study on massage therapy by the Touch Research Institute at the University Of Miami School Of Medicine, serotonin levels in the test subjects increased by 28 percent, dopamine by 31 percent. (1)

Serotonin – This hormone positively affects emotions and thoughts. It is a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect on the brain and body functions, producing a general sense of well-being. The ‘happy hormone’.

Dopamine – This neurotransmitter helps regulate mood, attention, learning and sleep and is vital in the body’s control of movement. It is also believed to release endorphins, chemicals that allow us to feel pleasure. The ‘feel good hormone’.

Whilst massage causes an increase in these neurotransmitters, it also decreases the levels of less desirable chemicals; cortisol (2) and substance P.

Cortisol – Stress affects the brain by releasing cortisol, often referred to as “the stress hormone”, which negatively affects many systems throughout the body. It is secreted into the bloodstream during the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response to stressful situations. Long term exposure to cortisol can result in sleep problems, depression, increased heart rate, affecting heart, lungs, circulatory and digestive systems and is also associated with a weakened immune system. We all know that our children are prone to more stress and likely to fly off the handle more quickly than the non-adopted child. The change in my son’s levels of anger have been remarkable to say the least.

In fact, I can’t remember when he was last angry and this was a boy who would tantrum daily or more. Massage hasn’t been the only therapeutic intervention, but it has gone a long way to help him being a calmer, more rational and mature boy.

Substance P – This is a protein found in the brain and spinal cord that transmits pain signals from sensory nerve ending to the central nervous system, i.e. its function is to cause pain. It has been implicated in inflammatory conditions and is believed to be involved in the regulation of pain, stress and anxiety. Massage has been shown to decrease substance P levels (3), contributing to reduced pain, stress and anxiety.

You probably already massage without thinking about it! When we bang our elbow we’ll instinctively rub it to make it feel better and we rush to soothe the grazed knee of our child.

Insufficient loving touch for all of us, but particularly children can lead to withdrawal, depression, a lack of appetite. Scientists are now acknowledging that if babies do not receive adequate, loving, tactile stimulation, they can be adversely affected, psychologically.

Massage and loving touch encourages eye contact, smiling, stroking and talking to our children, all of which are crucial to developing a loving bond between parent and child.

Massage opens up the communication between parent and child and the ability to understand the child’s communication, through their body language, is developed.

How to incorporate more touch into your family life

To start with make it a game and give a massage fully clothed on their back.

For example:

Weather forecast

Talk through weather patterns whilst drawing: rain drops, thunder pats, lightening zigzags, fluffy white clouds, wind whistling through the trees,sun shine drying up the rain, suns rays. Do each weather pattern several times over and over in a nice slow relaxed pace with firm strokes.

Plant a garden

Plant seeds and have flowers grow from the base of the spine to the top of the head. Have insects and animals visit, talking it through and making the appropriate sounds: buzzy bees, wiggy worms, spiders crawling, birds flying, rabbits hopping, cats purring.

It is important to treat our children with the utmost respect and to gain their permission with regards to giving them any sort of massage. Even the youngest baby will be able to indicate through their body language whether they are feeling comfortable or not. Teaching our children that they have the right to communicate whether they wish to be touched or not, will serve them well in later life.  For our children who have experienced abuse, this is a vital part of their socialisation. It is ok to say no and that their body is to be respected. By being respectful we in turn teach our children to assert themselves. This applies to any sort of touch. Have you aver witnessed a child being tickled and begging for it to stop, only to be tickled more?

When massaging your child, focus on the quality of your connection rather than the techniques. As long as these are performed caringly and lovingly there really is no right or wrong.

If your child cries or resists when massaging, then accept that they have had enough or are not in the mood and give them a cuddle instead.

Do not massage your child while asleep. You will also find that if they are tired, hungry or just been fed these are not good times to begin a massage.

Use a light pure vegetable such as sunflower, to massage your baby, without anything added such as perfumes or essential oils. Perform the techniques with care and with a firm even pressure to avoid tickling and irritating your infant.

Be relaxed yourself

In my baby classes, it was always a pleasure to do a guided relaxation for the parents at the beginning and to find that as we all relaxed, the babies more often than not, relaxed and quietened too. It is my belief that children come into this world with wonderful perception and intuition and can pick up on our feelings and emotions and often mirror them.

Children of course also have their own feelings and emotions and massage and quality touch give them the safe environment and self esteem in which to express them.

In my travels around the world, particularly in Asian countries, it is common to see mothers sitting in the sun massaging their babies in their laps. Watching this natural, effortless and loving gift that is so obviously a pleasure for both mother and babe, really brings home that we in the west have much to relearn and remember to become more attuned to a more natural, more peaceful, more tactile and more loving way of being.


  1. Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Diego M, Schanberg S, Kuhn C. Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy.  International Journal of  Neuroscience. 2005 Oct;115(10):1397-413. Touch Research Institutes, University of Miami School of Medicine, Miami, Florida 33101, USA.
  2. Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapy. 2011 Jan;15(1):3-14. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2010.06.001. Epub 2010 Jul 2. Does massage therapy reduce cortisol? A comprehensive quantitative review. Moyer CA, Seefeldt L, Mann ES, Jackley LM.
  3. Touch Research Institute. Authors: Tiffany Field, Ph.D., Miguel Diego, Christy Cullen, Maria Hernandez-Reif, Ph.D., William Sunshine and Steven Douglas. Originally published in the Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, April 2002, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 72-76.

Gill Tree is the founder and owner of Essentials for Health, one of the UK’s leading Schools of Massage and Sports Massage, established in 1992. Gill acts as an ambassador for massage and is campaigning to make the UK a more pro-touch society. She is a therapy business expert, pioneer bringing programmes to the UK such as the IAIM Infant Massage Instructors certificate in 1996 and Massage in Schools in 2000 and an award winning entrepreneur.

Contact Gill via Facebook and Linked In or email 01628 476100. Essentials for Health offer Introductory Massage Workshops around the UK and professional diploma courses.

Free resources

Gill has provided a number of free resources for Adoption Today readers.

Pdf of a photo sequence of simple fully clothed family massage techniques:

Pdf of a sequence of simple baby massage techniques. These techniques can be used on children up to age 4 or 5.

Free massage e-courses to learn to give an oil massage for the back and rest of the body. These lessons are for adults but can be adapted for a child age 6 or older.

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