Massage activities for disabled children and young people with profound and multiple physical and learning difficulties
This page was created for what we call our ‘Butterflies’ – children in wheelchairs with profound physical and learning difficulties.
Massage can be really helpful for children and young people with profound disabilities.
This page gives you links and advice to help you massage your Butterflies.
- Massage offers a lovely opportunity for bonding. Gentle, relaxing touch is a great non-verbal way to communicate tenderness and care, and build the connection between child and caregiver. It promotes secure attachment, releases feel-good hormones and helps our child feel loved and cherished.
For those with sensory, learning or behavioural difficulties:
- For children who are not very sensitive (hyposensitive) to touch, massage can help wake up their bodies and muscles – improving coordination and movement skills as their body awareness grows.
- For children who are tactile defensive, massage (if tolerated) can help to desensitise the skin. Firm touch can be preferable to gentle, while oil can make massage more comfortable. If your child doesn’t like hands, you can try using other implements: brushes, rollers or vibration devices, for example. It is important to respect your child’s boundaries, so if they resist or are unhappy, stop the massage and try again another day.
- Massage helps regulate the nervous system. For children who are always on the go with lots of energy, massage can be calming, encourage stillness and help with concentration. An active child might not be able to remain still for an entire body massage, but even working on a single limb can be helpful.
- Communication is really important. If your child can understand language, talk to them throughout the massage, telling them what you are doing. This is a great way to teach them about their bodies and help heighten their awareness of what they are feeling. Better body knowledge helps with movement and coordination, while the loving touch of massage can be helpful for self-esteem.
For those with physical disabilities:
- Massage relaxes tight muscles and other soft tissues. This may lead to better joint ranges of movement and thus improve movement skills.
- Children in wheelchairs or who have some difficulties with movement and coordination often don’t get sensory input (touch or physical contact) to all areas of their bodies. When parts of our bodies get less stimulation, the feedback to the brain is less – so they move less effectively. Massage wakes up our children’s muscles and allows them the opportunity to move better. Massaging the hands or legs is therefore a great thing to do before playing or working on gross motor skills/movements.
- Children who aren’t moving so much can have issues with circulation. Massage helps, because contracting underused muscles helps blood and other fluids move around the body. We always work towards the heart when we massage to help this process.
- Massage that includes movement of legs and hips and gentle manipulation of the tummy can help move stomach contents, reducing trapped wind and constipation.
How to massage your child
The idea of learning to massage can be daunting, but there is lots of great information out there to help us get started:
While this introductory video talks about children up to 6 months of age, the principles apply across the board – particularly if your child is not moving very much or struggles to reach gross motor milestones.
This video takes you through the whole-body massage with explanations of different techniques. As the masseuse explains, as your child gets older you may only get and arm or a leg in at a time but persevere as they will still get the benefits. If your child is older do feel free to pause the video to make sure you have time to cover the whole body in your massage-going slowly is more beneficial than rushing to keep up. You can also use more age appropriate songs as they get older.
This is a really lovely video of a mother massaging her older child with Cerebral Palsy (Spastic Diplegia). It shows some great techniques on the legs and back and explains some of the benefits.
This is a simple video showing some calming massage techniques for children who are over-stimulated/ over-excited. This can be lovely before bed or when they need to concentrate.
This video demonstrates hand and lower arm massage techniques. This can be lovely with children with tight hands or with floppy hands. If hands are tight, be careful to stretch slowly as you massage and keep looking in your child’s face to make sure you aren’t causing any discomfort.
Other helpful Butterfly resources
Here are a selection of suitable Our Home videos
Hand over hand technique is a way to stretch and massage your child’s hands whilst having fun.
Stealthy Ways for Handwashing
Massage is a great way to get your child to enjoy hand washing.