22 December 2009

Comfort zones

Jo Wadham

Baby Reflex is based on the idea that applying pressure to different areas on the foot can help the body heal itself.

Reflexology, an alternative therapy based on the belief that certain parts of the foot correspond to different parts of the body, has been practised in India, Egypt and China since ancient times. Now a new course designed for babies, Baby Reflex, aims to give parents techniques for dealing with childhood problems such as colic and teething pain.Reflexologists maintain that by applying pressure to different areas on the foot, they can help the body heal itself by unblocking energy pathways.
Sceptics may wonder how pressing on a part of their foot can help their sinus problems, but while they may not be able to prove that it works, practitioners and many of their clients insist that reflexology has helped them, either in terms of relaxation or by alleviating a specific condition. In a paper published in the journal Neuroscience Letters last year, Japanese researchers said that reflexology has a physical effect on the body. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, the researchers found that applying pressure to the zones of the foot relating to the eyes, shoulder and small intestine resulted in the stimulation of the corresponding areas of the brain. The researchers also looked at previous neurological studies carried out in relation to acupuncture. “Those results indicated that reflexology had some effects that were not simply sensory stimulation. Our results support that claim,” they said.

Jenny Lee is a chartered physiotherapist and reflexologist who spent more than 15 years working with UK doctors and children with asthma. One study, funded by Prince Charles’s Foundation for Integrated Medicine, monitored 47 asthmatic children who were given a weekly session of reflexology. “Not only was their asthma reduced, but we found some interesting side effects,” Lee says. “One was that their sleep improved. Their morning peak-flow reading [lung function test] was miles higher than usual. We also found that the children started joining in with their family’s interests and were nicer to their parents; they were bonding much more with their family.”

Spurred on by these results, Lee launched Baby Reflex in 2006. There are now Baby Reflex therapists working in Australia, Ireland, Spain, France, Turkey, Japan and the UAE.Lee says one of the advantages of reflexology over other alternative treatments such as acupuncture is that it is not painful. “Reflexology is something babies enjoy and is entirely pleasurable. It has a wonderful effect on babies. It calms and relaxes them. It’s not an ‘either/or’ with massage; they are great complementary treatments.”

According to Lee, Baby Reflex not only helps parents bond with their children, but it can also help with childhood issues such as colic, reflux and ear congestion. It also boosts the immune system. Shirley Ali trained with Lee and is now teaching Baby Reflex to small classes at The Club in Abu Dhabi. Ali is a trained aromatherapist, beauty therapist, masseuse and Reiki master and has been practising reflexology in the UK and in the UAE for more than 20 years.

Each course of classes lasts three weeks and is suitable for babies aged one month to two years. “The idea is to make it bite-sized,” Ali says, “because when you are a new mother you can’t take in as much information, and it’s not fair to keep the baby there too long.”Parents learn the reflexology techniques by practising on each other’s feet before trying the movements on their babies. “Baby reflexology works in the same way as reflexology for adults, but you have to take into account the size of the baby’s foot and the pressure you can apply,” Ali says.

Jane Miller, a Briton who has lived in Abu Dhabi for three years, has just finished a Baby Reflex course with Ali and has been using her new skills on her 10-week-old baby, Alice. Miller enrolled in the course in the hope that reflexology might help Alice’s colic, but says she knew at the very least that Alice would benefit from the relaxation aspect of the sessions. “Having experienced reflexology and knowing how lovely and relaxing it was, I wanted to do the same for Alice,” Miller says. She continues to use reflexology on Alice now that the course has finished, but there are some practical challenges. “Her feet are so small and she constantly pulls them away from me. She has tiny feet and I feel very clumsy doing it.”

Despite this, Miller thinks the reflexology may have had an effect. “She is definitely much more settled now and the colic is better. Whether this is coincidence because she is simply maturing, I don’t know, but I enjoy doing it and it’s another tool in the box.”In the first week of Ali’s course, parents are taught how to use reflexology to assist their baby’s feeding and digestion. Ali holds up diagrams of a baby’s feet with the relevant zones marked on them. Ali says one of the most helpful areas of the foot for parents to become familiar with is the calming zone just under the pad of the big toe. “Just use the knuckle of your little finger to apply a small amount of pressure, brushing down this area,” she says. Parents are also taught how to manipulate the areas relating to reflux and colic relief.

In week two, Ali explains how to help babies sleep or calm down. As well as the big toe calming zone, parents are taught the relax stroke down the inner arch of the foot from toe to heel. The final week covers general well-being. Parents learn the strokes for relieving teething pain, sinus pain, blocked ears and even insect stings. “The thing about baby reflexology is that it is portable, much more so than baby massage where you need to lie your baby down in the warmth,” Ali says. “You can do it while they are sitting in the trolley at the supermarket. If the baby is agitated or crying, you can just take their shoe off and press on the area relating to calming.”

The treatment time is brief. Ali recommends limiting each session to five minutes and not doing more than three sessions in 24 hours. Laura Dempsey, another of Ali’s students, agrees that the ease with which you can do reflexology is appealing. She has just returned from a trip home to the UK with her 15-week-old son, Hugo. “It was really useful in the plane,” says Dempsey, who lives in Abu Dhabi with her husband and two other children, aged three and two. “I did the calming one on the flight and he didn’t cry too much. It’s better than resorting to chemical medication.”
Dempsey, like Miller, was drawn to the course partly as a result of her positive experiences with reflexology treatments. “I had reflexology with Shirley when I was pregnant with Hugo,” she says. “I had a bad back, but the reflexology cleared it for the rest of my pregnancy. Reflexology is good for making you feel in balance. I came out feeling less heavy and more aligned.”She decided to try it on her baby. “I thought if I enjoy it, maybe he will, and maybe there is something in it. It’s a nice social time, too, to meet other mums with kids of similar ages and similar problems.”

Lee hopes to launch a new course for toddlers soon. “Once they are more mobile, we work on their hands,” she says. “We focus on different parts of the body using different nursery rhymes.” The apparent benefits of reflexology on young children continue to be shown. One Baby Reflex therapist in Ireland has noted improvements in children with cerebral palsy who have weekly reflexology sessions, and has started working with physiotherapists to develop this. As Lee says: “The research is only the beginning.”

For more information visit the www.babyreflex.co.uk or e-mail infoshirleypurly@hotmail.com.

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