By Jane Sheppard
Some of the most precious memories I have from when I was a new mother were giving my baby massages. I recall cradling my daughter in my lap while leaning back in my rocking chair with soft, melodic music playing in the background, and gently massaging her soft skin. While massaging her, I could feel her entire body relax as I felt my own body and spirit fall into a quiet peace, letting my tension and stress disappear.
Benefits for Baby
Touch is a primal need, and the first important mode of communication between a mother and her new baby. Nurturing touch communicates love, the main ingredient for physical and emotional growth and well-being. The one-on-one interaction of infant massage promotes health on all levels – psychologically, emotionally, developmentally and physiologically. Massage improves circulation, strengthens immunity, enhances neurological development, and stimulates digestion, providing relief of gas and colic. Massage can also raise a child’s sense of self and worth, which is tied to developing self-esteem.
When babies are upset, a soothing massage can lessen their tension and irritability and help them to feel more secure. In our culture, babies are born into a fast-paced, technologically advanced world with many unknown situations. This environment can create stress for a newborn. Without relief, this stress can accumulate and may cause a baby to shut down or block sensory intake and learning. Massage is a great buffer against stress. When we give our babies massage, we teach them how to relax. When relaxation is learned this early in life, they can have a lifetime tool for dealing with stress.
The benefits of infant massage are continually unfolding in scientific research. The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami conducts research on the benefits of nurturing touch. They have published studies that suggest that touch deprivation negatively affects the immune system and massage can stimulate immunity. In studies on touch deprivation among preschool children who were separated from their mother, they noted more frequent illnesses, particularly upper respiratory infections, diarrhea and constipation. A suppressed immune response has also been noted in several studies that monitored the separation of monkeys from their mothers. In a study on human infants (10 weeks old) the opposite effects were noted when the mothers provided extra tactile stimulation. The infants whose backs were massaged by their mothers experienced fewer colds and fewer occurrences of diarrhea.
Other studies involved preterm infants who, upon receiving daily massages, averaged 47% more weight gain than infants in the control group. The studies suggest that the tactile deprivation that many preterm infants experience in intensive care may delay their recovery. Massage therapy helps preterm neonates grow more quickly and leave the hospital sooner.
The benefits of massage are carried into adulthood. Research findings indicate that the secure attachments with primary caregivers formed in infancy produce adults more capable of healthy, happy, and trusting relationships. When the attachment bonds are not formed, children grow up being less sympathetic to others, and relationships lack trust and intimacy. Love, trust, compassion, warmth, openness and respect are conveyed through massage. The attachment bond of being held and touched helps make children more compassionate, loving, relaxed and natural. Studies have demonstrated that in societies where people are breastfed, massaged, carried and held as babies, the adults are less aggressive and violent, and more cooperative and compassionate.
Benefits for Parents
Massage is a pleasurable way to develop trust and intimacy with your baby and strengthen the bond between the two of you. It can promote a strong sense of confidence in parenting, since you can receive a great deal of feedback about your baby. Through massage, you can become more aware of how your baby communicates. You can also discover her threshold for stimulation by watching her body language and noticing how she looks and feels when she is tense or relaxed.
Parents can also find relaxation, peace, and calming for themselves through infant massage. Fathers can be wonderful at infant massage. Giving massage can give them positive interaction and a special bond with their baby at a time when a father can easily feel left out.
Origins of Infant Massage
Infant massage is fairly new in the United States and other western countries. However, massaging babies has been a parenting tradition in many cultures for centuries. In India, mothers regularly massage everyone in their families and pass this knowledge on to their daughters. After studying and working in India in the early 1970s and learning how mothers massaged their babies, Vimala McClure brought the practice of infant massage to the west in her book, Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents. She developed a curriculum that includes Swedish strokes, reflexology, and yoga, along with Indian massage strokes, and shared her discoveries with other parents. Interest in the art of infant massage continues to grow, and Vimala’s organization, the International Association of Infant Massage Instructors, has trained hundreds of massage instructors all over the world.
Giving a Massage
Choose a place that is warm, quiet and comfortable for your baby’s massage. For massage oil, the best choices are light, organic, cold-pressed vegetable oils, such as safflower, apricot kernel or almond. Commercially produced mineral-type baby oils have a nonorganic, nonfood petroleum base and are not a good choice. All of your massage strokes should be soft and gentle, long, slow and rhythmic, with just enough pressure to be comfortable but stimulating. Listen to and watch your baby’s reactions and respond accordingly. Let your baby set the pace. You can learn infant massage techniques by reading Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents, by Vimala Schneider McClure or by taking an infant massage class. To find an instructor in your area, contact the International Association of Infant Massage Instructors. Many Certified Infant Massage Instructors have developed specialized programs for special needs, premature babies and teen parents.
Your massages will have to be adapted as your baby grows into a child. When a baby begins crawling or walking, there are just too many exciting things to explore and the baby may crawl or walk away from the massage, making it harder or impossible to do. It’s never a good idea to force a child to receive a massage. Just wait until the child is ready again. Preschoolers usually love massage, and they can stay still for a longer period of time. My preschooler continues to love her massages and even likes to give me massages now. You can include rhymes and games along with the massage to keep it fun. School-age children may also love massage and benefit from it, but don’t try to push it on them if they don’t want it. Massage can be very beneficial to adolescents, who are usually concerned about body image and facing a lot of emotional challenges. You can always ask them if they’d like their neck and shoulders massaged when they are doing their homework. If they’ve experienced massage from an early age, they may even ask you periodically for a massage. Again, never try to force a massage on your children. Always ask permission first.
Your entire family can benefit from the loving art of massage. Give your children this gift of love and security. You will be participating in helping to create a future generation that is nonviolent, compassionate, caring, and able to cope with the stresses of a hectic world.