Being a new parent can be tough with new sleeping arrangements, a demanding feeding schedule, and the constant hustle and bustle that an infant brings to the home. Yet being a newborn is no walk in the park either. Your baby has lost his familiar cozy quarters, the food is different and requires effort to obtain, and everything is, well … new. The result of this new living arrangement can be stress for both babies and parents. The good news is that infant massage is a great tool for managing this stress.
Research shows the benefits of infant massage, nurturing babies’ psychological, physiological, and developmental growth. Proponents of infant massage claim that it fosters healthy self-esteem and increases bonding between parents and their babies. You know how much you love your baby, but in all of the frantic newness and exhaustion it sometimes seems that there is little time to slow down and show your baby you love him. Massage can validate those feeling of love and affection for babies and for parents.
There may be other, more exciting developmental boons associated with infant massage. In a poll sponsored by Developing Minds, 86 percent of respondents indicated that they believed infant massage could stimulate childhood learning. That’s not too far off base, says Dr. Tiffany Field, founder of the Touch Research Institute. According to Dr. Field, studies show that a five-minute massage enhances the performance of babies and children on tasks requiring attentiveness.
Rubbing your baby’s back may or may not turn him into a young Einstein, but it will help him slow down, relax, and pay attention to the world around him. Not a bad deal for something that feels so good!
Massage can be especially beneficial for high-needs infants and may provide some relief for babies who suffer from colic or unexplained crying bouts lasting three hours or longer.
Kimberly Habib, a licensed massage therapist and certified infant massage instructor at the Huggins Center in Melrose, Massachusetts, outlines some of the possible medical benefits of massage. She says infant massage helps babies who are prone to gas, constipation, and other digestive difficulties by:
- Reducing spasms in the colon
- Expelling stuck gas
- Regulating and stimulating digestion
- Encouraging and increasing endorphin output to naturally reduce pain
- Decreasing stress-related hormones.
Of course, massage doesn’t cure colic. Jessica Riley, mother of a colicky baby, turned to infant massage to help her son. She explains, “It doesn’t do away with the colic, but it does lessen it.” Massage doesn’t always do the trick for Riley’s son, but she points out that “it’s a great bonding time anyway.”
Infant massage might help preemies, babies born before 37 weeks gestation, as well. Studies demonstrate that babies who are massaged in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) gain weight faster and are released from the hospital earlier than their peers.
If your baby was born prematurely, you may want to ask her neonatologist if infant massage could be appropriate. Not all NICUs embrace the technique, and in those that do, your baby’s age and weight will determine whether or not massage is indicated.
One way to learn more about infant massage is to take a class. Habib recommends that parents and babies start an infant massage class when the baby is about 7 weeks old. Classes last four to five weeks, giving parents the opportunity to practice their techniques before returning for the next session. An added bonus is that classes are a great way to meet other new parents.
If going to class doesn’t jibe with your schedule, try the do-it-yourself route. There are several excellent resources that you can use as a guide. Any of the following is a good first start:
- Infant Massage, A Gift of Love (with Cheryl Brenman)
- Baby Massage: A Video for Loving Parents (directed by Jim Jenner)
- Baby Massage: A Practical Guide to Massage and Movement for Babies and Infants, by Peter Walker
- Loving Hands: The Traditional Art of Baby Massage, by Frederick Leboyer
- Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents, by Vimala McClure
Your Baby’s Cues
At its heart, infant massage is about responding to your baby’s cues. What time of day seems to work best for your baby? Does massage soothe him and help him sleep? If so, wait until 30 minutes before naptime. What type of strokes does your baby prefer? Are there sensations or settings that seem to disturb her? Habib adds a few additional reminders for new parents:
- Your baby should be awake during the massage.
- You shouldn’t massage your baby if he has a fever or an unknown rash.
- Don’t massage your baby if you are angry or in a rush.
If you have any questions or feel uncertain about something, ask your baby’s pediatrician. And remember, not all babies take to massage and some find it overstimulating.
While infant massage is great for babies and parents, there’s no reason for its stress-busting, feel-good benefits to stop with your baby. Some doctors recommend parental massage to relieve the stresses of parenting. When an exhausted parent gets a massage, she may relax and even fall asleep. Most experts agree that what’s good for parents is good for babies. So, while you’re nurturing your baby, don’t forget to indulge yourself and your partner.