Bond with Your Baby – Massage Can Bring You Closer to Your InfantSharon L. Hagemann, ND October 1, 2021
When I tell people that I do infant massage, I usually get one of the following responses: “Fantastic!” Or, “I didn’t know there was such a thing!” I wish I could say that the first response is the one I receive most frequently, but it’s not — although infant massage has been around for centuries and is a tradition in numerous cultures, it is now becoming more mainstream than ever before.
Baby massage was officially introduced to North America in the early 70s by Vimala McClure, when she founded the International Association of Infant Massage. While visiting an orphanage in Northern India, McClure observed that in the poorest of countries, the only thing which could really be given was love, and that giving infant massage was a way of imparting that great love.
She adapted many of the strokes used in infant massage from East Indian traditions, Swedish movements, reflexology, and yoga, all of which can be used from infancy through adolescence.
We all know that massage reduces stress in adults, but can babies experience stress? The answer is absolutely: from the time they are in the womb, through the actual birthing process, and thereafter.
Think for a moment about what an infant goes through during birth. They have spent nine months in a nice, warm, cozy protected place, and then suddenly, they are thrust into a huge world of noise and activity. Talk about a sensory overload! And that is just what the nervous system goes through, not to mention the physical strain that is put on the baby’s body during birth.
The benefits of infant massage can be broken down into four basic categories: stimulation, relaxation, relief, and interaction. The stimulation benefit actually refers to all the physiological systems in the body, so the child receives better sensory awareness, an improved immune system, better circulation, and faster neurological development. However, the most important of the baby’s overall development is skin sensitivity, or, very simply, touch.
Infants require touch to survive. They need to be held, talked to, massaged and carried, to promote natural sensory awareness, as opposed to artificial stimulants and toys. Stimulation created by parents giving their baby a massage is better than any toy out there.
In the United States, Dr. Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine (Florida) has performed and documented numerous studies on infant massage and its effects. She found that with just 15 minutes of infant massage per day, babies were found to cry less, have lower cortisol levels (a stress-inducing hormone), fall asleep faster, and stay asleep longer. When massage was done on premature babies, it was shown to stimulate their respiratory, circulatory, and gastrointestinal systems. They also gained weight faster, achieved better brain function, and exhibited increased serotonin levels, which enabled them to cope with all of the outside stimulants to which preemies are subjected after birth.
The relaxation and relief benefits work hand in hand for both baby and parent during infant massage. For the baby, massage will help build tolerance during stressful experiences, allowing them to relax and thus release pent-up emotions. (Yes, babies do experience these emotions, just like adults, although they can’t express their feelings in the same ways we can!) For the parents, this is where the benefit of non-verbal communication comes in.
Observe your child as you massage him/her. Are there areas that s/he likes massaged more than others? Is the baby tense, with clenched fists and hunched shoulders? Perhaps this isn’t the best time for a massage.
Try massage when the baby is quiet, but alert and happy. If the infant is hungry, sleepy, or fussy, the experience probably won’t be beneficial to either of you. Often the best time is just after a warm, relaxing bath, and right before bedtime. Of course, this will vary from household to household, but with experimentation, you will be able to find a time that is just right for both of you.
Babies will find relief from colic, teething, congestion, and constipation through massage. And parents will feel empowered when they have such a tool at their disposal to help their baby with minor ailments. When your baby feels good, you feel good too. It’s a win-win situation.
There are, however, times when it is wise to avoid baby massage. Do not administer massage within 45 minutes of a feeding, or when the baby has an elevated body temperature, vomiting, diarrhea, or chronic medical conditions. When in doubt, consult your child’s health care provider.
The most important benefit of massaging your baby is bonding. Is there a better way to show your baby love and respect than by spending some time one on one? Familial bonding and attachment is critical, not only for physical survival, but for emotional health as well. In our often chaotic world, anything we can do to increase our children’s feelings of trust, love, and security should be done. Infant massage is one way for us to do that on a regular basis.
So, take some time out of your hectic day. Find a quiet, warm, comfortable spot in your home, and give your baby a massage. Reconnect with your children after a hectic day. The few minutes you spend providing an infant with your undivided attention will instill trust, security, and love in that little one.
Sharon Hagemann is a Canadian-trained medial herbalist, traditional osteopath, and naturopathic physician. An internationally published author, she co-founded The Catskill School of Natural Therapies in Barryville, New York and has been an instructor in infant massage. Hagemann has also been a regular contributor to various publications.