A Shared Response to Baby's First Illness
The most recent respiratory virus spreading through the states was simply referred to as “RSV” (respiratory syncytial virus) by my grandson’s pediatrician. The baby, just five months old, had a cough for a few days that wasn’t going away. When my son-in-law took him in, he was alarmed when the doctor said the baby’s oxygen levels were so low that if they didn’t improve with a nebulizer treatment he would have to be hospitalized.
I happened to be visiting them in Washington, DC at the time and was glad I could be there to help during the next week. They used a nebulizer treatment (a misted bronchodilator) to help open the airways, but that wouldn’t treat the underlying condition. Saline nose drops were used to help clear nasal congestion. This was their baby’s first illness, and they were brave in the way they calmly and resolutely engaged with the prescribed regimens.
In news reports, health experts and parents alike say there’s “not much that can be done” when a virus is the cause of an illness. But that’s not entirely true if one uses integrative therapies. The strategy behind all of these techniques is an intention to strengthen the body’s own ability to heal. This is known as “tonifying” in acupuncture. Since these gentle remedies have not been rigorously tested and proved to be “safe and effective” by medical professionals, physicians cannot suggest them, despite their ease, low cost (if any) and centuries of continued use.
Here are some of the modalities I used with my grandson over the course of a week. I have studied and practiced them as a licensed massage therapist. But what really motivates me is my need as a mother and grandmother to participate in the health care of my family. Before I begin I take a few conscious breaths to relax and clear my mind. I focus on felt sensations and subtle ideas that come to me as I get in sync with the non-verbal exchange taking place.
1. A simple stroking of the body from head to toe.
Letting my hands float over the body, hardly touching it, creates a soothing and stabilizing effect on the energy that flows at the surface of the body. (A similar technique known as Therapeutic Touch is taught to nurses.)
2. Warm hands placed gently on the chest.
When I briskly rubbed my hands together to warm them, it made my grandson laugh. Then I placed my hands gently on his chest and said, “Ahhh”. This also made him laugh. Increased warmth means increased energy, which would help stimulate the healing action needed in the lung area. Touch from a focused practitioner’s hand will be in the same range of frequencies that biomedical researchers find effective for jump starting healing in a variety of soft and hard tissues.
3. Stroking the forehead from the center out to the temples and from the nose out toward the side of the face.
This technique from Tuina, a form of bodywork in Chinese medicine, helps to regulate an area. As I stroked gently over the skin on my grandson’s face, it felt very sticky. This is considered a sign of “dampness” in Chinese medicine. The wetness of my grandson’s cough confirmed this evaluation. I like the terminology of Chinese medicine because it frees me to think simply about solutions and put my creativity to work.
4. I imagined my grandson’s arms growing longer, reaching to the sun, so he could take some rays of light to bring into his chest to “dry” the dampness.
Guided imagery is used by many medical professionals as a way to engage the mind in healing. There's a saying in Chinese medicine that Qi (energy) follows the mind, so putting positive attention on an area can help healing.
5. When he needed to sleep, I put my grandson in a soft carrier which placed us chest to chest and chanted the sound of “E” softly.
Sound is also energy. The sustained sound of "E" (as in "free") is used to regulate the chest area. (“Ma” regulates the pelvic area and “Om” is used for the head.) The chant is used not for religious reasons, but for a vibratory effect, in this case to help loosen sticky phlegm.
6. Steam thins phlegm.
We went into the bathroom and I turned on a hot shower. We did not go into the water, but stood near the tub as steam filled the room. To pass the time we played with "sailorman Jack", who lives near the bathtub in a little red boat. Steaming was used only at night, when I knew we wouldn't be going outside again.(Because warm steam also opens the pores and can make a vulnerable person more susceptible to cold or damp air.)
7. I massaged the tip of the ring finger.
This pediatric Tuina technique is said to clear the lungs.
8. Essential oil on acupuncture points.
Use of essential oils on infants takes a knowledgeable practitioner. An acupuncturist friend suggested some acupuncture points on which to use essential oil, applied with the tip of a toothpick. This is like acupuncture without needles. It is used once a day for three days, followed by three days of rest, after which the cycle can be repeated two more times.
Most of the applications were repeated frequently throughout the day and evening. When we went to the pediatrician for a check-up after three days, the breathing was better, there was less congestion. My daughter was told she could cut down on the use of the nebulizer. The baby’s nasal congestion had cleared. By the end of the week he looked better and was sleeping more soundly. Did any or all of it help or had nature just taken its course? We can never know the answer to that, because it wasn’t a controlled study.
However, I hope that my daughter learned some ways to transform worry into action. We shared some uplifting moments despite our concerns. I would like to think that my grandson also learned something about sickness and healing, and that he had a tangible sense of our love and support. These possibilities make it all worthwhile.
Anyone who wants to use techniques like these to bring their love into the healing process should find a locally licensed massage therapist or acupuncturist. Accredited schools are a good source to find practitioners; many hospitals now have integrative practices also. Search them out, make them part of the team, and let every illness become an opportunity to learn.