Since the coronavirus pandemic began, I have been contacted by parents who are anxious about the impact the situation will have on their child. Many children will be off school for months, unable to see friends or partake in most of their usual activities. There is no getting away from the fact that this time is throwing up enormous challenges, of many different types and to many differing degrees for almost everybody. This is a difficult time, and it is going to continue to be difficult
In the conversations I have had with parents, we have found it helpful to pare things back to basics. What, of their old lives, can our children really not do without? There may be short term, negative impacts from a few months off school, not seeing friends, no extra-curricular activities or normal leisure pursuits. But how many of these effects will last beyond the short term? Providing a few basics are in place, our children can get through this time unscathed and may even develop resilience and learn some other useful life skills along the way. Perhaps a positive outcome of this challenging time is that we will be reminded of how little we really need to remain physically and emotionally healthy. (It is, of course, also important to remember that there are sadly many children around the world who will not even be able to rely on the basics that are described below.)
Over a thousand years ago the Chinese developed a system of medical massage for babies and young children called paediatric tui na. As well as being extremely effective for the treatment of many common childhood problems, one of its advantages is that it is very practical. It is possible to access the five key functional aspects of a child’s physiology on the hand, specifically on each of the fingers. This means the massage can be done while a baby is breastfeeding or without needing to get an older child undressed.
Each finger relates to a different acupuncture channel and function. Looking at these five functions and, crucially, what they need to remain healthy, shows us what the 5 pillars that support a baby or child’s growth and development are.
Thumb – spleen meridian – nourishment
The thumb relates to the digestive system. In order to maintain health, a baby or child needs adequate nourishment. Although what constitutes adequate nourishment is something which could be discussed all day, it can be stripped back to:
- Enough food or milk
- Gaps between meals or feeds
- A good variety of foods
Index finger – liver meridian – movement
The index finger relates to the flow of qi all around the body, which in Chinese medicine is governed by the liver. This enables the emotions to flow freely and for digestion to be rhythmic and comfortable. In order to maintain health in this area, a baby or child needs to be able to move. For a baby this means first kicking their legs, then rolling, sitting up, crawling and finally toddling. For a child, this means having several opportunities a day to be physically active. If, due to lockdown restrictions, this needs to be done in the home rather than outside, it is still beneficial.
For young children, the key is to move little and often. They need to intersperse more sedentary activities with short bursts of movement, for example, a play in the garden (if they are lucky enough to have one) or some star jumps.
Middle finger – heart meridian – connection
The middle finger relates to the Heart meridian which, in Chinese medicine, governs our emotions. In order for this aspect to thrive, the baby or child needs connection and intimacy. This is more than merely being in the presence of other people. It means having an emotional closeness to them, trusting them, receiving physical touch from them, doing activities together and, for verbal children, having conversations with them. Children may deeply miss seeing friends and extended family, but if they remain connected to those they live with, this will sustain them.
Ring finger – lung meridian – fresh air
The ring finger relates to the Lung meridian which, unsurprisingly, is related to breathing. In order to thrive, the Lung meridian needs a source of relatively clean air. For children who live in cities or whose opportunity to go outside is currently limited, this is probably the hardest basic pillar of health to achieve. If this is the case, simply doing some basic breathing exercises with your child (if they are old enough) can be beneficial.
Little finger – Kidney meridian – rest
The little finger relates to the Kidney meridian which, in Chinese medicine, governs our reserves of energy. In order to thrive, the Kidney meridian needs an adequate amount of rest and downtime. Even if they are not currently going to school and their lives are less busy than usual, we should remember that children are always hard at work behind the scenes with the mammoth task of growing and developing. This consumes a lot of their qi. Getting adequate rest is therefore even more important for children than it is for adults.
If you are aware that your child is struggling in one of these areas (for example, your toddler is going through a fussy phase and refusing to eat anything other than pasta), you can support that function by doing a simple massage on the relevant finger. Simply rub the pad of that finger in a circular motion (it doesn’t matter which direction) for between 1 -2 minutes, twice a day. You don’t need to use great force – just firm contact is enough. As well as supporting that function, the massage can also enable your child to support it better themselves. For example, with the case given above, by massaging the pad of the thumb on a fussy eater, you may well find that by improving their spleen qi, they then start to eat a wider range of foods.
As parents, we are hard-wired to want the absolute best for our children and it can induce anxiety if we feel we are not able to provide that. This extraordinary time, when the fabric of our children’s lives has been temporarily entirely changed, may stir those anxieties. So it is worth reflecting on these 5 pillars of health and reassuring ourselves that if our children have them in their lives, at least to a large degree even if not completely, then they will be getting what they need. Everything else, that is temporarily missing from their lives, is icing on the cake.