Years ago, I met a woman who taught infant massage. I was intrigued, but I was admittedly also skeptical. Did this mean she laid babies down on their bellies and rubbed their backs the same way adults received massages at day spas? The concept seemed strange if not silly.
Since my daughter was born last year, I’ve learned that infant massage is nothing like I imagined. The touch is gentle, tender and heartfelt, and it certainly doesn’t involve a massage table, fuzzy robe or scented candles.
“Infant massage is more than just the act of touching the skin,” says Tina Allen, founder and director of the Liddle Kidz Foundation and infant massage master teacher. “Clinical research has shown that massaging a baby can aid in his physiological and neurological development and function; help soothe common discomforts, such as congestion and constipation; promote restful sleep for the infant and, in turn, his caregiver; and increase healthy attachment and bonding.”
In addition to the many physical benefits, notes Allen, massage can become a regular time for parents to check in with their babies and take note of any subtle changes in their health. Infant massage also encourages the caregiver to communicate with baby in a language infants understand: touch.
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East meets west
Infant massage made strides in the U.S. in the 1980s when Vimala McClure, founder of the International Association of Infant Massage, learned about the benefits of the practice while traveling in India. McClure saw mothers there massaging their babies along roadsides and recognized that while they had little material wealth, they were able to give to their babies abundantly. “Infant massage is one of the oldest healing arts practiced around the world,” says Michelle K. Ebbin, a California-based massage and wellness expert. “Parents from India, Nigeria, Bali, China, Ireland and South Africa have passed baby massage routines down through the generations.”
Today in the U.S., many hospitals, such as Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, have licensed massage therapists working in the newborn nursery.
“In the past, NICU caregivers have been hesitant to use infant massage on a preemie. However, recent studies have shown there are many benefits to massaging a preemie, and more and more babies are now getting massage therapy as part of their NICU experience,” says James Sears, MD, co-host of The Doctors and pediatrician in Capistrano Beach, California. “Research has found that pre-term infants who are properly massaged show greater weight gain and improved developmental scores, and they are discharged earlier from the NICU.”
Additionally, a recent study at the University of Miami found that babies who are massaged appear more active and alert. Massage has also been shown to support baby’s flexibility and coordination of movement. “Most adults know how calming a massage can be, and it’s no different for an infant,” explains Sears. “I often recommend it to parents as an excellent way to calm a fussy baby.”
Massage and your tot
Interested in trying infant massage with your baby? Ebbin encourages caretakers to enroll in an infant massage class taught by a certified instructor to learn in-depth, full-body massage strokes for babies.
“An instructor can point out, mirror back and help parents learn their baby’s cues, which will help them give a successful massage,” says Katinka Locascio, a massage therapist and doula in New York City. “Plus, massage is an inherently tactile skill, so it’s best learned in-person from a trained and experienced educator.”
Locascio teaches infant massage to interim foster parents, who appreciate its bonding power. “Recently, a foster mother told me that by massaging the baby in her care, she was able to better respond to his cues … The baby cried less when he felt more connected to her,” she recalls.
Adds Ebbin, “When massaging, I love watching a fidgety baby suddenly slow down, focus on me and stare into my eyes. I know that the baby is tuning into the massage sensations he is feeling and learn-ing how it really feels to relax and let go.”
Remember, massage fulfills a universal need for touch and affection, but before beginning, you should consult your family’s pediatrician. Although it’s generally safe for healthy infants, it’s best to get the green light from baby’s doctor first.
Set the stage
After learning a few basic techniques, find a quiet, warm room, and lay baby on his back on a soft surface to start the massage. Make sure your baby is awake; he’ll be most responsive in the calm-alert stage.
Next, ask your baby if he’d like a massage, and make eye contact and smile when doing so. It may feel a little strange, but requesting baby’s “permission” shows him respect and sets a good example, explains Allen. “By relaxing, taking your time and making eye contact, you can accurately observe your child’s expression and nonverbal language. Over time, parents will become more attuned to his needs,” she says.
In turn, the baby recognizes this permission cue to signify “massage time,” and he’ll respond with a signal, such as a coo, that he is ready for his massage. “If you are massaging your baby and he is cooing and grabbing your hands, this is generally a signal to continue,” explains Locascio. “Once he’s had enough, he will let you know by turning his head away, pushing your hands away or fussing.”
Bonding and connecting
To get started, show baby your hands— the “instruments” you’ll be using for his massage—and warm massage oil in your hands. Make sure the oil is an all natural cold-pressed fruit or vegetable oil, such as grape-seed oil, because it will be absorbed into baby’s sensitive skin.
Ebbin suggests beginning a massage at your baby’s feet and legs, which are the least vulnerable parts of his body and often the most receptive to massage early on. “As your baby gets used to your touch, you can move up the body and touch areas that may be more sensitive, such as the stomach,” she says. For a successful massage, Ebbin recommends waiting at least 45 minutes after baby has eaten to begin. You should also avoid giving your baby a pacifier or bottle, which can be overstimulating, during the session.
Otherwise, Ebbin says you can massage your baby anytime you want him to relax, including after a bath and before bedtime. When you are pressed for time, remember that even a brief massage can be beneficial for baby. “Just keep your strokes slow, don’t rush them, and try to touch each area of the body,” she says. “Touch your baby gently with love and even two minutes can work wonders.”