Rebecca Avern talking about teenagers on the Qiological podcast

Rebecca Avern talking about teenagers on the Qiological podcast

I was really excited to be invited as a guest on Michael Max’s wonderful Qiological podcast. We had a really wide ranging and interesting discussion on all things adolescent – from the Chinese Medicine view of puberty, to the challenges of being a teen and to working with teenagers in the treatment room. We also focussed on possible reasons for the increase in mental/emotional health problems in teens today. Please do have a listen and share with anybody else who might be interested.

Magic and Emergence – Treating teenagers with Rebecca Avern

Easy and effective massages to promote good sleep in your child

Many parents have told me recently that their babies and children are not sleeping as well as usual.  This might be due to a combination of heightened anxiety in the household due to the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, the longer days and the rising yang qi which is resonant of the arrival of spring.

There are as many reasons why babies and children do not sleep well as there are suggestions of how to get them to sleep better.  However, these simple, easy-to-learn massages can be used on babies and children of all ages, whatever the cause of their bad sleep.  They derive from a system of medical massage called paediatric tui na (xiao er tui na) which has been used in China for approximately 1200 years.  

Please click on the link below to learn how to do the massages.

Massages for promoting good sleep in babies and children

The hidden link between sleep and digestion in babies and toddlers

There are as many different reasons why babies and toddlers don’t sleep as there are approaches to help them to sleep better.  I have seen parents losing their minds trying to work out why their baby sleeps well one night and not the next.  I have seen strong, capable and calm mothers and fathers cry in desperation at yet another broken night.  Theories abound as to why a particular infant is not sleeping – they are too hot, too cold, teething, don’t like the dark, slept too much in the day, didn’t sleep enough in the day…. However, one thing rarely gets mentioned, and that is the link between sleep and the digestive system. 

When a baby is born, their digestive system goes from being completely dormant (in the womb the baby receives all its food via the umbilical cord) to working overtime.  Babies usually double their birth weight in the first five or so months of life.  In order to do this, they need to ingest and digest an enormous number of calories.   Assuming their basic needs are being met, how a baby manages this task dictates more than anything else how they will feel.  If their digestive system is working well, they are likely be happy and settled. If it is not, they are likely to be grouchy and unsettled.

One of the most common ways for things to go awry, is for food (which includes breast milk) to accumulate somewhere in the baby’s digestive tract.  In Chinese Medicine paediatrics, this is known as Accumulation Disorder.  The baby or toddler simply does not have enough digestive qi to keep the food moving through, so it lingers around and festers.  When this happens, the food starts to ferment and generates extra heat in the body.  This heat rises up and affects the shen, which is often translated as ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’ and which governs the ability to sleep.  

In adults, the equivalent is what I call ‘Great Uncle John on Christmas Day syndrome’.  After eating an enormous meal, much of it rich, heavy food, not moving around and with some heightened emotions added into the mix too (family all together having not seen each other all year), Great Uncle John will start burping, farting and becoming irritable, and will often not sleep well that night.  He may complain of gripey pains in his stomach and feel much better after he’s taken some antacids and then had a good evacuation of his bowels.  This is similar to how a baby or toddler with Accumulation Disorder feels.  Unlike Great Uncle John however, due to his immature digestive system, an infant is prone to this on a daily basis, not just Christmas day. 

In order to minimise the chances of Accumulation Disorder developing, there are a few general dietary guidelines that should be followed:

  • The baby/toddler should have gaps between feeds and/or meals, even when solely breastfed.  This is to make sure they have fully digested one feed without running the risk of ‘overloading’ their system with the next.  Every child is different, but a rough guideline is to allow 2 hours minimum between the end of one feed and the start of the next.
  • The baby/toddler should not eat too many raw, rich, heavy or greasy foods.  They will be better able to digest foods that have been cooked, such as rice congee.  This is so that the first part of the digestive process has been done for them, during the cooking process, and their immature digestive systems do not have to work quite so hard.  
  • Some kids have eyes that are bigger than their stomachs!  While it goes against most people’s instincts to limit what a baby eats, some robust types do not know when to stop (to read more about this, take a look 'Is your toddler a robust or sensitive type?).  This means they cannot process the amount of food they take in, and their system becomes clogged up.  So making sure the child does not over-eat will lessen the chances of Accumulation Disorder developing.
  • Try to ensure that the baby or toddler is as relaxed as possible when they are feeding or eating, and that the environment is calm.  In Chinese medicine, we talk about good digestion needing the ‘smooth flow of qi’ to the stomach and intestines.  Being relaxed helps this. 

The Chinese have a saying that goes ‘if the stomach is not harmonised, sleep will not be restful’.  Of course, there can be other reasons for poor sleep, but this is one that should be considered and is often ignored.  Look out for more blogposts on sleep in babies, children and teenagers! 

Is there a therapeutic element to thumb sucking?

The perceived wisdom is that children suck their thumb in order to feel secure and as a way of soothing themselves.  For many children this is obviously true but there may be another reason why certain children are drawn to sucking their thumbs.

From the perspective of Chinese medicine paediatrics, the thumb relates to the digestive system.  There is a mode of treatment commonly used on children in China called xiao er tui na which loosely translates as paediatric medical massage.  One of the moves in this system is to rub the pad of the thumb in a circular motion or to stroke repeatedly down the radial (outside) edge of the thumb.  Each of these techniques strengthens the baby or young child’s digestive system.  A child’s digestive system is considered to be undeveloped and immature until the age of about 7 or 8.  This is why babies and young children are so prone to colic, reflux and other digestive symptoms.  

So, doctors of traditional Chinese medicine consider that when a baby or child sucks their thumb a lot, they do so instinctively in order to massage and stimulate their digestive system.  Whilst you could say this is rather clever of them (the babies and children that is), we also know that habitual thumb sucking once the teeth come through can create problems.

So, if you are concerned that your child is becoming a habitual thumb sucker, you could try either rubbing the pad of the thumb in a circular motion or stroking downwards along the radial edge of their thumb, as shown in the video below.  You could do this two to three times a day, for up to two minutes each time.  At best it may reduce their need to suck their thumb.  But at the very least, you will actually be helping their digestive system to become healthy and strong!

Click on the link below to see the video:

Chinese medical thumb massage to strengthen the digestion

Is your toddler a ‘robust’ or ‘sensitive’ type?

It barely needs stating that every single child in the world is a complete individual, with their own unique combination of traits, tendencies and quirks.  It is important to be mindful of this fact whenever we start talking about types or categories of children.  Although I am about to describe two broad categories of young children, please bear in mind that within each category there are an infinite number of nuances!

Chinese medicine understands that children may be born with one of two constitutional tendencies.  Neither type is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other.  Children in both categories will have their own set of challenges and strengths.  However, understanding which type your child is, may help to guide you in how you parent them.  This is most applicable in  children up to the age of about four.  

The robust child

The robust child is born with a surplus of qi.  They will look physically robust, often have red cheeks and a huge appetite.  They perceive the world as a place that needs exploring.  Every new place they go or new person they meet is a wonderful opportunity to express their natural inquisitiveness.  They make their presence strongly felt and are often impossible to ignore!  

The robust child will thrive off having a full and varied daily routine, with lots of stimulation and activity.  They will hate being constrained and will often show a strong level of independence for their age. 

When they become ill, they tend to have strong symptoms and high fevers.  They may be very ill but throw off the illness as quickly as they succumbed to it.  

The sensitive child

The sensitive child is born with not quite enough qi.  They will often be physically slight or thin, have a pale complexion and tend to eat small amounts of a smaller range of foods.  They may need time and the support of an adult to adjust to new places or people.  They may need to ‘warm up’ before revealing their true nature in situations that they are not entirely familiar with. 

The sensitive child will thrive off having a quieter lifestyle.  They will need a balance of activity and stimulation, with rest and downtime.  They may rely on the presence of a parent to help them feel secure when they are going to a new place or doing a new activity.  

They tend to get mild illnesses, that may last a while but rarely amount to anything.  

Some children fall very clearly into one category, whilst others seem to sit somewhere in the middle of the two.   This way of classifying children has some overlaps with the system developed by paediatric health researcher William Boyce.  He differentiates between ‘dandelions and orchids’.  He writes that dandelions are able to thrive in a wide variety of environments, whereas orchids need a more specific environment in which to thrive.  I would say that the kind of society most children in urban environments are brought up in does indeed favour the robust type child.  This is unfortunate, as the majority of children born in the West today are the sensitive type (the reasons for this will be the subject of another post!).  Below are some tips that might help parents, who clearly identify their child as being strongly one type or other, meet their needs.  

Robust children need:

  • A lot of movement and physical activity (although rest of course too)
  • Opportunities for lots of exploration and adventure
  • Sometimes help with knowing when they are full 
  • Guidance to know when to step back and allow other children to take centre stage!
  • Lots of love (of course) but firm, clear boundaries

Sensitive children need:

  • Smaller amounts of activity interspersed with rest
  • Encouragement to explore and try new things
  • Encouragement to eat a wide range of food
  • To be allowed to take their time to feel their way into new situations or relationships
  • Lots of love (of course) and a gentle, tender approach

It is very easy, as a parent, to be concerned that our child is a particular way.  For example, we may worry that our really robust child dominates when playing with other children and that this means as an adult they will be perceived as over-bearing or bossy.  Or we may worry that our sensitive child is never going to make their mark in the world and will be over-looked.  But this worry is usually misplaced.  Both robust and sensitive children, as they grow and mature, will have the ability to find a path in life where they can express their true nature and excel.  If we try to turn a child into something they are not, we are likely to cause them harm.  If we respect their individuality, and meet their needs accordingly, they are likely to emerge into adulthood with the confidence to manifest their true nature in the world.  

Nurturing the Young webinar: coming up this Saturday

I wanted to alert you to my upcoming webinar this Saturday.  It is a three hour webinar for practitioners, but also interested parents, titled "The Importance of Nurturing the Young to raise healthy, happy children."  This short introduction interview with Lorne Browne, of Healthy Seminars (who are hosting the webinar) will tell you all you need to know about it.

The Earth Element

This post is an introduction to some of the key themes related to the Earth Element.  Each child has all of the Five Elements within her and therefore a discussion of the Earth Element is relevant for every child.  However, for some children it will be more relevant than for others.  We are all born with varying innate tendencies, and each child will have areas of life in which they excel and areas they find more challenging.  If having read this post, you feel that your child has an imbalance in their Earth Element, then the suggestions at the bottom will be especially relevant for them.    

Key themes related to the Earth Element 

Needs; nurturing; feeding and food; mother and mothering; caring for oneself; caring for others; study and concentration.

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Earth Element

Your child may have an imbalance in their Earth Element without having experienced any of the factors described below. We are all born with an innate, constitutional imbalance in one of the Five Elements.

Lack of nurture

The Earth Element is resonant with bodily needs, comforts and securities which are often associated with the home, domesticity and the mother.  Apart from pregnancy, breastfeeding and childbirth, these needs may of course be met by an adult figure of either gender.  

For the Earth Element to become strong, a baby and child require ‘good enough’ mothering.  This is more than simply being given enough food, bathed or being put to bed on time.  A baby is sensitive to whether he is being held tenderly or mechanically.  He can sense if the arms that hold him are offering only vague and disinterested support.  It is the quality, as well as the content, of the mothering he receives that is all important.  And whilst perfection is neither possible nor desirable, the Earth Element requires that nurture is good enough most of the time.  

Smothering/overly dominant mothering

The ultimate role of parents is to bring up a child who is eventually capable of independence.  It sometimes feels a cruel irony that the heart of a mother’s role is to create a child who will eventually want to separate from her.  

Ideally, a mother’s care will be a response to the needs of the child.  Sometimes, however, a mother’s need to care is so strong that it overshadows the needs of the child.  As a child strives for independence, his mother unwittingly discourages this because of her strong need for her child to remain dependent on her.  A child who is not allowed age-appropriate independence, or who feels smothered, will grow up without a clear sense of how to look after his own needs.  This will impede the healthy development of the Earth Element.  When the Earth Element is balanced, a child will develop a good sense of how and when to look after himself, and when to ask for help.  

Lack of a stable home environment

The Earth Element also symbolizes stability.  When strong, it enables a child to feel secure, stable and centred.  The more stable a child’s environment is, the more she is able to internalise this sense of stability.  If a child lives with a sense that life is about to change in some way, it will be difficult for her to remain internally centred and relaxed.  

A child’s security depends above all on strong connections with her family.  But it also extends beyond this to her home and community.  Regularly moving home, or even school, may have a profound effect on a child. 

Worry in the family

One of the emotions associated with the Earth Element is the Chinese word si, which is often translated as ‘worry’ or ‘overthinking’.  If a child is surrounded by worry, she will imbibe this and it will become her own.  Worry is said to ‘knot’ the qi of the Earth Element.  The more this happens, the more a child’s thoughts or worries become stuck, and go around and around in her mind.  

Too much intellectual stimulation

It goes against the grain to describe intellectual thinking as a possible cause of imbalance.  However, in Chinese medicine terms, it is the organs related to the Earth Element (the Stomach and Spleen) that digest, not only food, but also information.  So that means when a child is asked to study, memorise things, concentrate or focus, or even when she reads, it uses a lot of qi from these organs.  The Earth Element in a child, just like all the other Elements, is immature and needs time to develop.  It also has a big job to do because it is responsible for digesting the enormous amount of food a baby or young child must consume relative to her size.  So, if a child is being asked to use her mind a lot at a young age, it can deplete the Earth Element.  

It is interesting to consider that in many countries, for example Germany, children do not start school until the age of 7, as opposed to 4 as is usual in the UK.  From the Chinese medicine perspective, starting school at this later age would be considered far more health-promoting.  By 7 or 8, a child’s Earth Element has matured and become stronger, and so is better able to stand more intellectual strain. 

Manifestations of an imbalanced Earth Element

A tendency to worry

One of the key ways in which an Earth imbalance manifests is a propensity to worry and overthink.  The worry may focus on something that has happened in the family, such as an argument she has overheard between her parents.  She may worry about school the next day because a child was unkind to her and it may happen again.  Older children typically worry a lot around exam time.  The child’s thoughts are liable to go around and around in her head and it may be hard for the parent to find a way of reassuring her.  Things often become worse at bedtime when the qi of the Earth Element is at its weakest. 

Difficulties in finding a balance between dependence and independence

A child whose Earth Element is not strong may have a particular struggle in the following ways:

  • She may find it hard to achieve a level of independence appropriate to her age.  In a young child, this may manifest by routinely becoming upset when she has to separate from her mother at the school gates.   An older child or teenager may want constant contact with her mother, via texting or talking, when she is not with her.  Or she may experience a great deal of worry or anxiety before going away or feel homesick when she is away.  
  • She may struggle to ask for or accept help when she needs it.  She may place very high expectations on herself about needing to ‘be a grown up’ and feel that she is somehow failing if she asks for help
  • She may oscillate between these two ends of the spectrum.  One minute, she may be excessively needy and the next she may be entirely rejecting of support.   

An unhealthy relationship with food

The way a child looks after herself in the realm of food may reflect the state of her Earth Element.  It may be that the child has a very poor appetite, or is a fussy eater.  At the extreme end of the scale, eating disorders always include some imbalance of the Earth Element.  Another child may overeat in a misguided attempt to create a feeling of security. 

Some other signs that the Earth Element is struggling

  • She easily feels hard done by or that ‘nobody understands’
  • She is prone to tummy aches

How we can help the Earth Element in our children to develop strongly?

Provide as much consistent, responsive and nurturing care as possible

The more a child’s needs are met when she is young and entirely dependent, the more she will become adept at being able to look after herself when she is an adult.  Otherwise, she may go through life always seeking what she did not get as a child. 

The ‘right’ amount of mothering

Every parent will know that it is impossible to always make the best decision about when to step in, and when to step back and allow a child to work something out herself.  But if, as parents, we reflect on whether or not we have a tendency to err particularly on the side of being too hands off or of intervening too much, this can help us to moderate the tendency and achieve more of a middle way.

Allow a child to feel heard and understood

The Earth Element will grow stronger if a child feels that she is really listened to and that parents really understand how she feels.  In a rushed moment, it can be all too easy to respond to a child with a comment such as ‘there is no need to feel like that’ or ‘it can’t be that bad’.  Whereas if we respond with true empathy, by acknowledging how the child is feeling rather than denying it, it can help her to move through that feeling state more easily.

Provide a consistent rhythm and routine

The Earth Element thrives by having a rhythm to life.  This can be having meals at regular times, regular bedtimes and consistent patterns to the daily routine.  It is not about being rigid and inflexible.  But having some kind of rhythm and flow to daily life helps most children to feel secure and stable.  

Moderate amounts of intellectual or ‘head-based’ activities

For the Earth Element to thrive, a child needs to have times when she is not thinking or needing to apply her intellect.  School work cannot be avoided, but it should be balanced with physical activity, creative pursuits or imaginative play.  


Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Earth Element

  • Lack of nurture
  • Smothering or overly-dominant mothering
  • Lack of a stable home environment
  • Worry in the family
  • Too much intellectual stimulation

Signs the Earth Element in a child may be struggling

  • A tendency to worry
  • Difficulty in finding a balance between dependence and independence
  • An unhealthy relationship with food

Support for the healthy development of the Earth Element may include

  • Consistent, responsive and nurturing care
  • The ‘right’ amount of mothering
  • Allowing a child to feel heard and understood
  • Providing a consistent rhythm and routine
  • Moderate amounts of intellectual or ‘head-based’ activities

The Wood Element

This post is an introduction to some of the key themes related to the Wood Element.  Each child has all of the Five Elements within her and therefore a discussion of the Wood Element is relevant for every child.  However, for some children it will be more relevant than for others.  We are all born with varying innate tendencies, and each child will have areas of life in which they excel and areas they find more challenging.  If having read this post, you feel that your child has an imbalance in their Wood Element, then the suggestions at the bottom will be especially relevant for them.    

Key themes related to the Wood Element 

Anger and related emotions; boundaries; power; constraint versus freedom; personal growth and development; compliance vs assertion; movement; fairness.

Factors that challenge the healthy development of the Wood Element

Your child may have an imbalance in their Wood Element without having experienced any of the factors described below. We are all born with an innate, constitutional imbalance in one of the Five Elements.

An overly repressive environment

A child will learn from an early age that she exists in a world where there are rules that limit what she can and cannot do.  One of the many challenges of parenting is to constantly decide when, where and what limits should be imposed.  If the culture of the family is to impose very strict limits on freedom and independence, it may have a negative impact on the development of the Wood Element.  Emotional repression may have the same effect.  It is natural for everybody to feel angry or frustrated at times.  Although children need to be taught what behaviour is acceptable or not, finding a way to manage and express angry feelings is important.  If it is  considered unacceptable to express anger, or for siblings to squabble, for example, a child may begin to repress these emotions and this will block the flow of qi in the Wood Element. 

An environment lacking in boundaries, rules and guidance

On the other hand, a child will rarely thrive without clear rules and boundaries.  A child whose parents can never say ‘no’ to him, who is never made to wait or whose every whim is indulged is rarely a happy one. Rules and boundaries help to support the growth and development of the Wood Element, just as a climbing plant needs a trellis to hold it up.  A child left to his own devices may struggle to bring his plans to fruition and achieve his goals.  

An environment that suits the healthy development of the Wood Element for one child, might not be so beneficial for another.  Just as different plants thrive in different soil, the varying nature of a child’s constitution means that a particular approach to discipline and boundaries will be too constraining for one child but not firm enough for another.  The challenge for parents is to try to respond to the needs of each particular child, and to recognise how their own history and circumstances will mean they have a particular bias too.  

Living in an atmosphere of conflict or violence

The Wood Element needs external harmony to be able to thrive.  Within families, and particularly within the parental relationship, conflict is dealt with in different ways.  Some couples will openly and frequently argue and then make up.  As long as there are periods of harmony between the arguments, and also a lot of love, a child will, it is hoped, not be negatively impacted by this.  Problems arise when the conflict between the parents is extreme, constant or even violent.  Equally problematic is an atmosphere of chronic, unspoken resentment and irritation. 

Of course, a child may be exposed to conflict outside the home too.  He may have a teacher who is prone to shouting, become involved in or witness ongoing tension between his peers at school or experience conflict in his neighbourhood or community.  Whatever the nature of an individual child’s response, the Wood Element is particularly susceptible to imbalance when exposed to disharmony and conflict in whatever form.  

How might we recognise that the Wood Element in a child is struggling?

Difficulty with the expression of anger

One of the key signs that the Wood Element is imbalanced is that the child has particular difficulty managing his feelings and his expression of emotions in the anger family.  This can manifest in different ways:

  • He displays frequently aggressive and/or destructive behaviour.  The qi of the Wood Element moves quickly and tends to rise upwards.  It may therefore feel to the child (and to other people) that the anger comes from nowhere and take him over
  • He is constantly irritable or frustrated.  This is usually a sign that the child is ‘stuck’ in her feelings.  It may manifest as constant rolling of the eyes, huffing and puffing and sighing.  
  • He is depressed and apathetic.  Depression may be a sign that the qi of the Wood Element has become blocked, and the natural outward expression of anger has turned inwards.  The child may feel hopeless and as if life has no point to it.  He may have a strong ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude to life.
  • He is overly compliant and unassertive.  It is not a sign of emotional health for a child always to do what she is asked, or always to concede to the wishes of other children with whom she is playing.  It is the qi of the Wood Element that gives a child the strength to assert herself, stand up for herself and to become independent as she grows older. 
  • Many children with an imbalance in the Wood Element oscillate between all the above.  As Aristotle rightly said, ‘Anyone can get angry – that is easy…; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time and with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.’

Difficulty achieving an appropriate level of independence

Another sign of an imbalance in the Wood Element is a child who struggles to achieve an appropriate level of independence.  This may manifest in different ways:

  • A child may feel the need to constantly defy the authority of her parents and/or teachers.   She is compulsively defiant, and always does the exact opposite of what is expected of her.  The degree of defiance she displays begins to hamper her ability to thrive.  She struggles to know when to hold firm and when to concede.
  • A child may, on the other hand, show an inability to grow into independence.  This is often most noticeable around adolescence, when we would expect a child to begin to forge her own path in life and make her own decisions. 

Other signs the Wood Element may be out of balance

  • The child is prone to night terrors
  • The child’s mood is always improved when they have a chance for physical activity
  • The child is prone to headaches

How can we help the Wood Element in a child to develop strongly?

Finding a ‘good enough’ balance between boundaries/rules/guidance versus freedom/dependence

We all come to parenting with our own biases.  Some of us tend to parent as a reaction to how we were parented, and others parent as a repetition of how they were parented.  The more we can unpack our biases, and respond to the needs of the unique child in front of us, the better able we will be to find this tricky balance between allowing our child freedom and providing them with rules and boundaries.  Of course, this is an ever-changing feast.  It is something that a parent constantly needs to review as their child grows.  

Support with the expression of emotions in the anger family

Helping a child to manage and express their angry feelings will help to create balance in the Wood Element.  Children have many constraints put upon them, and often very little choice.  Frustration and anger are a natural response to this.  It is important that a child is not made to feel that having these feelings is somehow wrong or shameful.  It is also important to help a child find ways of expressing the feelings, whilst at the same time giving clear messages about what behaviour is or is not acceptable. 

Permission to express individuality

Not allowing a child to express their true nature is a form of repression and, as we have seen, any repression negatively affects the Wood Element.  It can be hard as a parent, if we are not totally secure in who we are, to allow a child to express their unique self. As the author David Solomon noted, ‘Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.’

Provide opportunities for physical activity

In order for the qi of the Wood Element to flow smoothly, a child needs lots of opportunities for movement.  This does not need to be organised sport.  Simply running around in the park is enough. 


Factors that might hinder the healthy development of the Wood Element

  • An overly repressive environment
  • An environment lacking in boundaries, rules and guidance
  • Living in an atmosphere of conflict or violence

Signs that the Wood Element may be struggling

  • Difficulty with the expression of anger and related emotions
  • Compulsively rebellious and defiant
  • Lacking an age-appropriate level of independence

Support for the healthy development of the Fire Element

  • Finding a ‘good enough’ balance between boundaries/rules/guidance versus freedom/dependence
  • Support with expression of emotions in the anger family
  • Permission to express individuality
  • Providing opportunities for physical activity

Is there more to a quick cuddle than meets the eye?

We all know there is nothing better than a big hug. However, being touched as babies and children is a biological necessity.  This is according to Professor Francis McGlone, of Liverpool John Moores University, who has spent his career researching the effects of touch. Professor McGlone believes that some of the key benefits of touch are: 

  • It promotes healthy brain development, particularly those parts of the brain which help us to manage social interaction
  • It plays a role in reducing both anxiety levels and pain
  • It is one way in which we establish a boundary between ourselves and the external world
  • It helps us to inhabit our physical body and to feel comfortable in it

(If you are interested in finding out more about Professor McGlone’s work, you can listen to him being interviewed by Dr Rangan Chatterjee on the Feel Better Live More podcast)

What exactly does touch do?

From a scientific perspective, touch activates specific nerve fibres on the skin (called CT afferents) which stimulate different parts of the brain.  Research has shown that pleasant, nurturing touch (such as skin-to-skin contact between a baby and mother) can stimulate the brain, whilst unpleasant touch (such as certain medical procedures) reduces brain activity.  

A different perspective on touch

Touch is associated with the Metal Element in Chinese medicine

In Chinese medicine, the skin and touch are related to the Metal Element.  If you are not familiar with the Metal Element, you might find it helpful to read about it here before reading on. 

Skin is the part of us that meets the outside world

Chinese medicine can help us to understand touch in a different way.  The Metal Element houses the Lungs (by which we mean the energetic function of the Lungs from a Chinese medicine perspective).  One of the functions of the Lungs is to send what we call defensive qi to the surface of the body.  The skin, nourished by this defensive qi, forms a boundary between a child’s internal body and the external environment. In health, this boundary will be sufficiently open to allow a child to feel connected to and affected by their external environment.  However, at the same time, it will be sufficiently closed to keep out what we would not want to allow in.  This may be pathogens such as cold viruses but also less tangible aspects of life, such as intense emotional atmospheres.

For example, a child with insufficient defensive qi on the surface of the body may succumb to more than his fair share of coughs and colds.  Or there may be a more emotional manifestation.  He may feel especially vulnerable to criticism.  The harsh words of a ragged parent at bedtime might feel as if they penetrate right to the core of his being.  His degree of upset might, to the parent, feel exaggerated in response to the trigger.  

Another child might manifest an imbalance of defensive qi at the other end of the spectrum.  He may be especially closed off, be hard to make contact with and may appear unmoved by events in his life that we might expect would induce particular emotion.  For the child, to be in this state may feel isolating.

The right kind of touch (suggestions of which are below) can help to regulate the amount of defensive qi at the surface of the body.  It can promote balance so that a child is adequately, but not overly, protected from outside influences.

Skin and the nervous system

When a child feels under stress, the body will respond by readying itself for battle.  From a Chinese medicine perspective, one way of doing this is by sending its resources (in this case, defensive qi) to the surface of the body.  This is akin to sending troops to the front in preparation to defend against potential attackers.  This is a useful response when there really is a threat.  However, to live in a constant state of ‘red-alert’ is not health-giving.  It means that too many of the body’s resources are employed in defending itself from attack and there is less available to fuel our internal processes, growth and development.  What’s more, it is simply tiring to be in this state for any length of time.  

The right kind of touch can help to ‘de-stress’ a child by signalling that a threat is no longer present.  This will help them to achieve a more relaxed state. 

Touch helps us to feel ‘at home’ in our bodies

Another interesting aspect of Professor McGlone’s work is his finding that touch can help us to feel embodied and generate a sense of feeling comfortable in and connected with our bodies.  This idea very much overlaps with the Chinese medicine concept of the po, which is related to the Metal Element and is often translated as ‘the corporeal soul’.  When the po is well regulated, a child will be at ease in his body and have an awareness of bodily sensations.  It will make him less likely to somatise emotions, which might then manifest as pain or other bodily symptoms.  

What is the right kind of touch?

As with everything, parents should always respond to the unique nature of their child.  For some children, lots of cuddles all the time feels overwhelming or even violating.  For others, there is no such thing as too many cuddles!  Bearing this in mind, the following are suggestions of ways in which parents might bring more nurturing touch into their relationships with their children.

Skin to skin contact

Babies, particularly premature babies, benefit enormously from skin-to-skin contact with their mother in the hours and weeks after birth.  This has been shown to reduce mortality, severe illness, infection and the length of hospital stays.  Professor McGlone’s work suggests that it may also help to promote emotional regulation.

Using slings instead of buggies

Carrying babies and toddlers in slings means we are more likely to stroke their heads, hands or feet.

Baby massage

Next time you think about giving your baby a little massage, remember that it may help him to regulate his emotions as he grows, feel ‘at home’ in his body and lower his stress levels!

Loving touch

Simply incorporating as much spontaneous, loving touch as feels right whenever we are with our children is beneficial.  Just a comforting pat on the shoulder or back can have a beneficial impact. 


Therapeutic touch is not limited to human touch.  There is an increasing amount of evidence that stroking and cuddling animals has a stress-reducing and calming effect.  This can be most clearly seen in children who are on the autistic spectrum, whose lives can literally be transformed by the presence of a support dog.  However, any child will benefit from contact with cuddly animals!

And finally, of course, lots of cuddles

We know that cuddles help us to connect with our children, but next time your child asks for a cuddle, you can also remember of the other myriad benefits it can bring them – and you!

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