What’s the Difference Between Adult and Pediatric Massage Therapy?

July 15, 2022

On more than one occasion, it has come to my attention that many massage therapists and healthcare providers have a misguided belief that their initial massage therapy training would have prepared them to work with children. It is common for massage therapists to suggest that their instructors tell them they can provide pediatric massage therapy, just ask their parents, and use lighter pressure. Let me clear something up immediately; if your instructor gave you that guidance, they gave you incorrect information. There is much more to pediatric massage therapy’s safe and effective practice. Every therapist or healthcare provider I have met would benefit from more education in this practice.

What’s the Difference Between Adult and Pediatric Massage Therapy?

Many providers understand that some significant differences in providing massage and touch therapy to children are to consider that the client is smaller in size, pressure should be lighter, and to ask their parents. These are fundamental considerations but not the only differences in providing massage therapy for children.

Massage Therapy for Adult Clients

As healthcare professionals, we should always consider each client’s unique needs and indications for massage therapy rather than providing a standardized protocol for care.

Under the scope of professional massage therapy practice, therapists working with adults can employ various techniques ranging from relaxation and spa therapies to structural integration. Therapists may apply more pressure based on client preference, and range of motion may involve more significant movement than we would utilize with pediatric clients.

Understand that most adults have more developed muscular and soft tissues than pediatric clients and can tolerate a massage session that incorporates various techniques that would be considered unsafe for children whose muscles are not fully developed.

Adults have often spent years developing their postures, body mechanics, and areas of holding stress-related tension. Consider an adult who works in a repetitive profession or has experienced an injury. When an adult client has a condition that developed over an extended period of time, our therapeutic work may require more sessions to see a comprehensive benefit. We may achieve a more significant benefit with a child demonstrated in fewer sessions. 

With adults, verbal communication, and similar vocabulary, allow us to thoroughly discuss their interest in seeking touch therapy. The client can help explain their healthcare-related needs directly and the stress management techniques they use at home. Compared to children, adult clients may also better understand how to follow any at-home protocol, which may assist in their preventive healthcare plan.

Pediatric Massage Therapy

Healthcare providers often use the term pediatric to describe children in a healthcare or hospital setting. Some will say that the word pediatric is an “umbrella” term that covers all of the patients in that facility from birth to the age of discharge from the hospital (often 18 years of age). While others recognize that pediatric is defined as healthcare of children, which may mean in the hospital setting, but can also refer to children who are developing typically.

In understanding how to provide touch therapy for children, we must first recognize they have different physical, emotional, and developmental needs than adults. Pediatric massage specifically addresses these individual childhood considerations. Some providers believe that massage therapy solely addresses medical and healthcare indications. However, pediatric touch therapy is a perfect intervention for regular healthcare as an adjunct and preventative method of therapeutic intervention.

We adapt our therapeutic care for children to address an individual and unique approach. Children are undergoing significant growth, development, and physical changes. The child’s skin is thinner, more fragile, and has more compact sensory receptors than an adult’s. Their bones may not yet be fused or ossified and require a gentler approach. These considerations are important to those practicing touch therapy techniques.

We consider a child’s size in our treatment plan and employ developmental considerations and age-appropriate language adaptations as we build trust and rapport. As with every client, we use informed consent, and specifically for children, we use a structured permission process. We may use language that can at first appear elementary to adult clients but helps us to best connect with those still developing a comprehensive vocabulary.

Some healthcare providers consider pediatric massage a modality for children with special healthcare needs. Pediatric massage therapy will be a significant part of a therapeutic treatment plan in specific healthcare-related situations. However, as adults receive massage therapy for general health and wellness, so do children. Yes, we can use pediatric massage as indicated to address a variety of healthcare considerations, but dealing with anxiety, stress, and insomnia are also concerns for our younger clients.

Considerations for All Clients

Obtaining informed consent and permission before beginning a massage session establishes respect and understanding of the benefits of healthy touch. With children, this may require input from a parent/guardian or other healthcare providers responsible for their medical care. 

Adapting techniques to a client’s healthcare needs and preferences establishes trust and communication. We must always communicate adaptations and possibilities with the type of therapeutic session we can provide. Many clients do not understand the range of modalities and techniques under a massage therapist’s scope of practice. When you take the time to explain options and choices to your client, you help to establish the foundation of a successful therapeutic session. Professional communication is an essential consideration with clients of any age.

Specific Training is Required to Provide Pediatric Massage Therapy

The bottom line is that even if you have the training to provide massage therapy for adults, that does not mean you know what you are doing when working with children.

At Liddle Kidz®, we aim to ensure that parents and healthcare professionals have thorough education, training, and background in the safe and evidence-informed practice of touch therapy to ensure that every child is cared for in the most professional manner possible. We do not take this professional practice lightly. I would remind all providers who wish to practice pediatric massage therapy to look at their background and credentials to ensure their qualifications before working with this growing population.