You'll find hundreds of files on cleft lip, cleft palate here on widesmiles.org.

This one is about: The Gentle Touch


(c) 1996 Wide Smiles
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THE GENTLE TOUCH

by Joanne Green

At first I worried about my son, Joey. The beginning of his life would have been a child psychologist's nightmare. Bounced between orphanage, foster home and hospitals for more than a year, then uprooted entirely at 14 months of age to be placed in a different world with different people, a different language, different foods, and nothing to identify himself as the child he was. It should have been enough to lay the groundwork for some real problems.

Joey was born as the anticipated child of a poor married couple in Korea. His multiple birth defects presented complicated issues for the family that gave him life. As much as they loved him, and as much as they may have wanted to provide for his needs, they simply could not. Two days after his birth he was relinquished to an orphanage.

In the orphanage, Joey did not do well. He failed to thrive, for any one of a number of possible reasons. Maybe the orphanage staff did not have the time nor the equipment to feed him properly. Maybe he needed to be held more or cuddled more. At any rate, by the age of 6 months my baby weighed only one half pound more than he did at birth - 7 1/2 pounds. He was starving to death, whether for love or for food, or for both.

A family in the US began sponsorship of Joey. Through that sponsorship he was moved to a foster home where he no longer struggled to survive and began to gain weight and strength. Then he was put into the hospital to begin correction of his many birth defects. The first hospitalization lasted three weeks - an eternity for an infant. He got out of the hospital and went back into the foster home for a while. Then was put back into the hospital again for an initial repair of his bilateral cleft lip. That hospitalization lasted nearly another month.

As the baby neared the end of the second hospital stay, the authorities were trying to make a decision. This child had not yet been claimed for adoption, and they feared never would. If a family were not found, he would leave the hospital and go back into the orphanage where he would be declared "unadoptable". That's when a social worker in Oregon got a wild idea out of the blue to call the Green family, and the rest is history. Eighty-nine days later we met him at the Oakland Airport and claimed him as our son.

What was a day of rejoicing for us was not such a thrill for this frightened little boy. He didn't know us. He didn't know where he was and he didn't know what he could do about his situation. All he saw was yet another move in his always-changing life.

Joey had already developed an arsenal of defense mechanisms. In the fourteen months of his short life he had come to one tragic conclusion, and that was that there was only one person in this world that he could truly count on - himself. At fourteen months of age, he could rely upon no one but himself. He would trust no one but himself. At an age at which he should cuddle down and find comfort in his mother's arms, he found comfort only in knowing that he was in charge of his world.

He never was a baby. Joey was fourteen months, going on fourteen years. He chose one person in his new world to trust, and that was his daddy. Joey's attachment to my husband was legendary! He latched onto his daddy and held tight with both fists. But even with that attachment, Joey still trusted only himself, and he risked himself to no one.

My sons, Jacob and Joey, are the same age. Watching the difference between the two was, in a lot of ways, a study in opposites. When Jacob ran to mommy, Joey took care of his own needs. When Jacob needed mommy to approve of his endeavors, Joey found approval in himself. When Jacob needed mommy to solve his problems, Joey solved his own. And yet, as self-reliant as he was, Joey was still a baby. I could not help but believe that somewhere deep inside my little boy was a baby who wanted nothing more than to cuddle safely in his mommy's arms and let her protect him from this big old world around him. How would I ever reach the baby in my boy?

It happened one day quite by accident. We were downstairs watching TV one night. The fire in the wood-burner was toasty warm and we were all relaxed and comfortable. I was sitting in my favorite rocker and Joey was standing in front of me. I reached out to my three-year-old son and, in a very natural sort of way, began giving him a back rub. He liked it. He leaned back into my hands and invited me to rub more. I massaged his shoulders and his neck and into his scalp. And at the same time I felt a trusting energy flow between us. My son and I were connecting with the baby in him who needed to learn trust.

The back rub became an almost daily ritual after that. And with each passing day I felt more and more of a closeness build (or should I say tear down) between my son and myself. The wall he had constructed to protect him from whatever others might do to him began to crumble. He began to trust me to be there for him. Somehow I had stumbled onto something, and I wanted to know more about it. I looked into the subject of massage.

What I found most interesting was the subject of infant massage. Although Joey was not an infant, the same principles applied. Infant massage is the gentle. Rhythmic relaxing stroking of an infant's or small child's muscles. The benefits of infant massage are many, most of which may be helpful to other cleft-affected children. While Joey's problems became an exaggeration of those shared by most other cleft-born children, the same issues may apply.

First, infant massage stimulates the bonding process. This was clearly felt in our case. For others, often when a child is born with a visible birth defect there may be some time that the parent spends in grief. Some initial bonding may have been impaired by that period of grief. There is also the closeness lost when breast-feeding is impossible. In fact, for some cleft-affected children, not only is breast-feeding not an option, but bottle-feeding can also be very stressful and not conducive to bonding. A few minutes per day spent in infant massage may help to retrieve any lost contact time.

Infant massage aids in relaxation. This becomes especially helpful at times of greater stress, such as doctor's appointments or hospitalizations. In fact, I found that a ritual of massage helped Joey to overcome some of his greatest fears at the doctor's office. By massaging his back and shoulders while waiting in the examining room he was able to begin to relax in a place that was previously associated with great stress.

Enhanced relaxation enhances nutrition. A relaxed baby will eat much more easily and the food will be digested much more easily. A child who works a bit harder than most to get his food may benefit from a short massage session prior to the feeding. The massage relaxes the child and at the same time stimulates the muscles so that he is ready to feed and free of excessive stress at the same time. Not only might he feed better, but he is more likely to digest the meal more easily as well.

Infant massage promotes faster healing. After surgery, daily sessions of infant massage may help the child maintain a relaxed environment and heal faster. Not only is the child more relaxed, but infant massage also helps to release the chemical properties necessary for healing.

Infant massage in not a panacea. It will not take the place of a close mother-child relationship, proper nutrition, good medical care, surgery and the right medications. But it can enhance all of those. And, unlike many other things in this life, it can't do any harm.

Joey is now six years old. Our relationship is wonderful. And I continue to give him back massages. Not only that, but I also massage his shoulders, scalp, ears, and - his personal favorite - his feet. I massage him, and sometimes he gives me a massage. I love the closeness, the touch. And maybe it wasn't this gentle touch that brought my son to me at last. Maybe he was just ready to come. But it's a nice way to celebrate the fact that my baby has at last found this degree of comfort in his life.

-----------WIDE SMILES would like to examine some of the other holistic approaches to cleft care. If you and your child have experience with some type of holistic intervention, please contact WIDE SMILES at (209) 942-2812, or write about your experiences and send them to the WIDE SMILES address.


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