Different Strokes: Why You Should Massage Your Baby
Baby massage has taken the western world by storm and rightly so, for the health and wellbeing benefits for babies. Certified infant massage instructor Lisa Townend gives us a better understanding of what baby massage is and how to perform it on your baby.
Baby massage is a millennia-old parenting tradition from the East, which is included in traditional Ayurvedic medicine as well as traditional childcare in South Asia, Africa and in parts of the USSR. It’s only been a fairly recent addition in the West; having been included in care regimes in neonatal ICUs, to reduce the stress of babies who have limited physical contact.
A good case for baby massage
The International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) brought baby massage to the West in 1981. IAIM is the first and largest organisation of its kind in the world solely dedicated to baby massage. Their contribution to the world of touch is a safe and effective baby massage routine that is carried out with your baby’s permission and consent. Working with your baby’s approval is a powerful way to display respect and the value and appropriateness of touch. A baby-led approach to massage means that you are meeting your baby’s physical needs first and adapting your strokes and techniques as your baby’s behaviour indicates.
Why is touch so powerful?
Our sense of touch is the first sense to develop in-utero and has been detected in human embryos as early as eight weeks old. Touch is a constant companion while in the womb, rocking and supporting the baby. In the later part of pregnancy, baby’s tactile experience advances from a gentle caress to the rhythmical pulse of contractions that results in baby’s entry into the world. After birth, babies who receive soothing nurturing touch have a smoother and more secure transition to life outside the womb compared to those who don’t.
What’s in it for baby?
Our babies develop through their sensory organs, and massage naturally engages and stimulates all of the senses, developing your baby through love and care. This interaction develops pre-language communication, provides an opportunity for quality one-on-one time with undivided attention, and promotes bonding and secure attachment between parent and child.
Every system of your baby’s body is developed through massage stimulation, which is hugely beneficial in aiding digestive concerns like colic, reflux and gas; relieving teething discomfort; alleviating respiratory concerns; balancing hormonal levels; improving circulation; aiding coordination and balance; advancing learning ability, and developing mind/body awareness.
Just as massage is hugely relaxing for adults, so it is relaxing for your baby, and your baby learns how to be calm and how to relax. Relaxation may extend to a reduction in stress hormones and increased flexibility. This calm and relaxation may also result in improved sleep patterns, and who doesn’t want a baby that sleeps deeper or for longer?
What’s in it for you?
The benefits of baby massage are not limited to the babies themselves; parents and caregivers gain a great sense of confidence in handling their baby and in meeting their baby’s needs as they learn to read and respect their baby’s behavioural cues.
Nurturing touch increases your love-hormone levels and this increase in prolactin and oxytocin accelerates bonding, promotes secure attachment, and even stabilises blood pressure, all while furthering your motherly instincts and your sense of wellbeing. Studies have also shown that regular baby massage may stimulate lactation and may decrease postnatal depression, making it a valuable natural supplement to treatment options.
One of the greatest benefits for new families is that baby massage gives Dad special one-on-one time with his baby, engaging in a beneficial activity and bonding from day one. Siblings can be involved in massage time too, decreasing sibling rivalry and creating a relaxed environment.
Guidelines for pleasurable baby massage
Here are some simple-to-follow preparation guidelines that can make massaging your baby a more pleasurable and beneficial experience.
- Choose a room in the house that is quiet, with the least number of distractions so you and baby can simply connect and engage with each other.
- Make sure that there won’t be any bright lights in your baby’s eyes, that there is no draught, and that there is a comfortable place for you to sit. Your comfort is of paramount importance, as one of the elements of bonding is imitation and your baby will mirror you. This means if you are relaxed and comfortable, so will your baby be. If you are anxious or distracted, your baby will most likely be unsettled and fractious.
- Selecting oil suitable for baby massage is worth considering as it allows the massage strokes to be smooth. Ideally it should have a neutral odour, as your baby also bonds with you through your natural scent, which shouldn’t be masked by other scents. An organic cold-pressed vegetable oil like grapeseed oil is recommended, as it penetrates the skin easily and is odour-free.
- Before you begin to massage, take a moment to relax. This may entail a few deep breaths – breathing in the sight, sound, touch and smell of your baby – or it may entail lying skin-to-skin with your baby, or perhaps wearing your baby and doing a few simple yoga stretches. Most importantly, just ensure you are relaxing.
Start by engaging your baby in eye contact while you ask if you can undress them, and subsequently if you can massage them. Observe your baby to recognise and read their unique “yes” and “no” behavioural cues. Talking or singing to your baby throughout your massage time is very comforting for your little one; to hear you and to be aware of what you are doing. Massage each area of your baby’s body with smooth strokes, using as much of your hands’ surface as you can, with a gentle and firm pressure in slow rhythmical movements. Follow your instincts in reading and respecting your baby’s behavioural cues and massage in a baby-led manner, always meeting your baby’s needs first.
Lastly, remember that your touch is the best touch for your baby and is their comfort and security in a very new and unfamiliar world. Happy massaging!