It’s one of life’s simple pleasures (massage has long been enjoyed by adults), and research is showing that babies grow better and act better when they are on the receiving end of the right touch. Infant massage is a skin-to-skin connection that helps parents and baby better read each other’s body language – without saying a word.
Besides the fact that it is just plain fun to touch your baby, infant massage helps babies grow and develop better. Other cultures highly value touch to help babies grow. In some Eastern societies a mother is reprimanded if she doesn’t give her baby a daily massage. One of the most exciting areas of research is the connection between touch and growth. Touched babies thrive, and here’s why.
Touch stimulates growth-promoting substances
Healthcare providers have long known that babies who are touched a lot grow better, and now there is research to back up this observation. There seems to be a biological connection between stroking, massaging, and grooming infants and their growth. Touch stimulates growth-promoting hormones and increases the enzymes that make the cells of the vital organs more responsive to the growth-promoting effects of these hormones. For example, premature infants in a “grower nursery,” where they can gain needed weight, showed 47 percent more weight gain when they received extra touch.
Animal researchers have recognized the connection between a mother animal’s licking her offspring and how well her babies grow. When newborn pups were deprived of their mother’s frequent licking (equivalent to infant massage), the level of growth hormone decreased, and the pups stopped growing. Even injecting growth hormone into the untouched pups would not cause them to grow. Only when the mother animal’s touching and licking were restarted did the pups resume their growth.
Researchers have found that human babies deprived of touch showed decreased growth hormone and developed a condition called psychosocial dwarfism; even more amazingly they also did not grow when given injections of growth hormone. Only when given human touch did these infants grow. This finding implies that touch causes something beneficial to occur at the cellular level that makes the cells respond to growth hormone. Yes, there is something magical about a parent’s touch.
Touch promotes brain growth
Not only is touch good for the body, it’s good for the mind. Studies show that newborns receiving extra touch display enhanced neurological development. Why this smart connection? Researchers believe that touch promotes the growth of myelin, the insulating material around nerves that makes nerve impulses travel faster.
Touch improves digestion
Babies receiving extra touch show enhanced secretion of digestive hormones. Researchers believe that this is another reason that touched infants grow better. It seems that touch makes the babies’ digestive system more efficient. Babies with colic caused by the irritable colon syndrome may have less trouble in the colon when massaged frequently.
Touch improves behavior
Research shows babies receiving extra touch become better organized. They sleep better at night, fuss less during the day, and relate better to caregivers’ interactions. Touch settles babies. Massage can be a wonderful tool for helping your baby go to sleep at night.
Touch promotes baby’s self-esteem
Being on the receiving end of loving hands helps babies develop a feel for their body parts by learning which areas of the body are most sensitive and which need relaxing. Being touched gives value to a person, like an adult feeling “touched” by the remarks of a friend.
Touch helps parents
A daily massage helps you to get in touch with your whole baby, to read her body language, and to learn her cues. Giving your baby the right touch is just one more step up the ladder of learning about your baby. Infant massage is especially valuable for the parent and infant who had a slow start – for example, when separated by a medical complication. Massage helps parent and baby reconnect. For the slow-start mother who doesn’t feel naturally “motherly” toward her newborn, massage is the extra spark to ignite the fire. Likewise for the slow-to-warm-up baby, massage helps break down the barrier so that the uncuddly baby begins to enjoy being touched – and the parents get used to touching their baby.
Several employed mothers in our practice use an evening infant massage as a tool to help them reconnect with their baby after being away for the day. This special touch enables them to tune into baby and tune out their work as they reenter home life.
For dads who are novices at caring for babies, massage is a hands-on course in baby handling. Also, it’s important for baby to get used to dad’s touch as well as mom’s. Babies thrive on different strokes.
High-need babies have tense muscles that need help relaxing. Every baby needs lots of touching. High-need babies need more (of course!). There is no touch more soothing than that of skin on skin, although for some babies, skin- to-skin contact can actually be stimulating, so you have to proceed with caution. Infants who spend time in neonatal intensive care units after birth tend to have a high need for pleasant touch, since so much of the touching they experienced in the hospital was painful. Some very sensitive high-need babies – dubbed “uncuddly babies” – actually pull away from being touched because they find it threatening or overstimulating. In this case, a routine of careful, gentle touches can gradually accustom this baby to being handled and will help him eventually enjoy touching.
Special touches for special babies
Handicapped infants – and their parents – particularly benefit from infant massage. Studies show that massage helps motor-impaired infants better communicate their needs to the parents – a process called social cueing. Massage puts you in touch with your infant’s body signals.
LEARNING THE RIGHT TOUCH
Massage is a touch you do with your baby, not to your baby. It’s an interaction, not a task. You learn which strokes your baby enjoys and, as if dancing, go with the flow of your baby’s body language. While it is nearly impossible to rub your baby the wrong way, here’s how to learn the right touch for your baby.
Choose a warm, quiet, draft-free place. Our favorite is in front of a floor-to-ceiling window with the rays of sunlight warming baby. Do this ritual wherever you and baby are comfortable: on the floor, a padded table, grass, beach, or bed. Put on soothing music . Infant-massage instructors are a good reference source for music to massage by.
Choose a time when you are not in a hurry, not likely to be interrupted, and baby is most in need of relaxing. Some parents like to start the day off with a morning massage. Some prefer a before-nap massage. Babies with evening colic are best massaged toward late afternoon or early evening before the “happy hour” of colic begins. Sometimes a late-afternoon massage can prompt the colicky infant to forget his evening blast.
Choose the right massage oil. Infant-massage instructors and their selective infant clientele prefer fruit or vegetable oil (“edible oils”), vitamin E enriched and unscented. Look for “cold pressed” on the label, which means the oil has been extracted only by the use of pressure, not by heat or chemical solvents, which change the characteristics of the oil. Avoid oils made from a petroleum base. Massage oils that have stood the test of time are coconut, almond, apricot, safflower, and avocado oils. Watch for a possible skin allergy rash to occur within an hour, especially to nut oils.
Position yourself and baby so you’re both comfortable. Sit on the floor with your back against the couch or wall, or kneel alongside your bed. In the early months babies like to lie in the natural cradle formed in your lap when you sit cross-legged; or just stretch your legs straight out in front of you. Place baby on a diaper-covered lambskin or a dryer-warmed towel draped over your legs as a pillow. When baby grows out of your leg cradle, stretch out your legs alongside baby. Be sure to keep a spare diaper handy for the unexpected sprays.
Veteran infant-massage instructors stress the importance of respecting baby’s desire for a massage. They advise, before laying on hands, asking baby’s permission – “Would you like a massage?” Babies become attentive to a setting event, a group of events that signal a familiar event will follow. When baby sees you rubbing oil into your hands and hears you pronouncing the cue word “massage,” watch for his face to light up approvingly. If baby is upset, it’s best to postpone the massage and just hold him awhile or use other comforting techniques. Remember, massage is something you do with your baby; if he’s not “with” you, wait until a better time. If he becomes upset during the massage at any point, stop and just hold him. Massage is not meant to be like a Band-Aid that you apply to a baby who is hurting, but rather a process that equips baby (and you, too) to be better able to handle life’s stresses.
If baby is wiggling or appears stiff and tense, open the ritual with a touch-relaxation technique: Engage baby in eye-to-eye contact before you start. Grasp baby’s wiggly or tense legs and bicycle them while speaking softly, “Relax, relax…” This opener sets baby up to associate the touch-relaxation motions and sounds with the pleasant ritual to follow. This is baby’s opening cue that the play is about to begin. And relax yourself. A tense baby doesn’t relax to the touch of tense hands. Read and feel the response of your baby rather than making massage a mechanical exercise.
Begin with the legs, the easiest to work with and the easiest part for baby to accept. Hold the foot with one hand and “milk” the leg from ankle to thigh with the other. Then, hold the thigh with both hands, as if holding a baseball bat, and using a gentle twisting and squeezing motion, move your hands from thigh to foot. Finally, roll the leg between your hands from knee to ankle. As you move down the leg to the foot, do a series of thumb presses with your hand encircling the ankle and foot. For the finishing touch, lightly stroke the legs from thigh to feet before you move onto the trunk.
To massage the abdomen, slide your whole palm and fingers in a hand-over-hand circular motion, working from the rib cage downward. Next, slide both hands around the abdomen in clockwise circular movements. To relax a tense, bloated abdomen try the “I Love U” stroke . Finally, using fingertip pressure, try “walking” over the abdomen.
For the chest, slide both hands along the rib cage from center to sides and back again, like flattening the pages in a book.
The arms and hands are done in the same fashion as the legs and the feet, beginning, however, with a “pit stop” (massaging the lymph nodes in the armpit).
The face has special strokes all its own – whole-handed smoothing; lightly pressing, pushing, and circling with the thumbs; and finally combing from forehead over cheeks with light fingertip strokes.
Last, do the back, everyone’s favorite. With the pads of your fingers, lightly rub small circles all over the back. Then gently come with the fingertips from back over buttocks and legs to ankles.
These strokes are the main ones that our infant massage instructor teaches to the patients in our practice. There are many other creative touches that you and your baby will work out together as you learn the art of infant massage. You might also take a look at the book by Vimala Schneider (Bantam Books, 1989), complete with photographs illustrating the strokes. Remember, as in all aspects of parenting, read your baby along with the book. You can also purchase videotapes to learn the technique or obtain the services of a certified infant-massage instructor who can teach you personally.
Giving your baby a massage is like reading a long poem. If both of you are in the mood to hear the whole poem, you start at the beginning and go line by line in an orderly sequence (baby knows what to expect). If time is short or the setting is not conducive to poetic retreat you can jump in anywhere with a few favorite lines that you have memorized. For example, if you have had the whole massage earlier in the day, then at bedtime it is possible to savor the beauty of the whole by doing only the arm or the back massage to send your little one off to dreamland. Since he has learned to associate this with relaxing, you have a wonderful finishing touch to your bedtime routine, and one that can be administered by father.
Excerpted from www.askdrsears.com
International Association of Infant Massage
Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents
by Vimala Schneider Mcclure