Loving touch - the art of baby massage
Massage can have a powerfully positive effect on your baby and is simple to learn to do at home
“Massage is a way of giving our babies love through touch,” says Jo Hogan of pregnancy spa and wellness centre, Bella Mama, in Auckland. “The act of touching, stroking and being held is such an important thing for all mammals and human beings are no exception. We thrive on being touched.” Baby massage has been practised in many cultures for centuries, with the techniques passed down through generations of parents. Jo often reminds her baby massage students that the first thing a mammal, such as a cow, cat or dog, does directly after birth and in the weeks following, is to lick their new infant. It was generally thought that licking was simply to clean the baby, “But we now understand that it is about far more,” Jo explains. “It is about the positive effect that touching the baby has, and the skin stimulation also has benefits.”Many of us may view massage as a luxury, but for babies it offers much more than relaxation. “Every time we touch, cuddle, stroke and hold our babies, it improves their brain development,” says Jo.
The art of baby massage doesn’t just involve touch. When massaging your child you are in direct communication with them and all of the senses are stimulated. This is vital for the bonding process. While touch alone is very powerful, prolonged eye contact as well as verbal and other non-verbal communication are also important elements.
Bonding doesn’t necessarily happen directly at the moment of birth. “Bonding is a process, not an event,” says Jo. “Sometimes it does happen instantly, which is very much hormonal, but sometimes that process is interrupted and the bonding happens in the weeks and months after birth.” The disruption of this process can be due to a range of situations, such as medical complications, premature birth, caesarean recovery, lack of support and even postnatal depression. “When we massage our babies, the communication we have is all part of the bonding process,” says Jo.
Baby massage is therefore a perfect way for fathers and adoptive parents to create a bond. “If the mother is breastfeeding she is getting a lot of skin-to-skin contact [with the baby], and the dads can feel a bit left out,” explains Jo. Massage allows dads to get that skin-to-skin contact too, while also communicating and strengthening the bond with their child.
As well as offering emotional benefits, massage is also incredibly relaxing for babies as their days can be stressful with so much stimulation on offer around them. “A massage at the end of the day, often prime meltdown time, can be calming and soothing,” says Jo.
The International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) lists the many benefits massage offers parents and children:
- Interaction that promotes bonding, trust, confidence and feelings of love.
- Stimulation of hormonal and digestive systems. Learning and concentration, as well as muscular development and growth.
- Relief from symptoms such as gas, colic, constipation and growing pains.
- Relaxation through reduced stress hormones, calming and improved sleep patterns
To begin with make long strokes down your baby's body, working form their shoulders to their hands, then to their hips and feet.
For the tummy gently massage in a clockwise or downwards motion.
Use both hands in a milking motion to massage fown your baby's arms and legs, one at a time.
Gently massage your baby's hands and feet with your fingers.
If baby is comfortable on their tummy, make long strokes down their back, from their neck down to their buttocks.
It's nice to create a calming environment for the baby, but this isn't always possible if you have a busy household. The important factor is to make sure the room you're in is at a comfortable temperature. If you're in a t-shirt or singlet then the baby will be comfortable naked.
The best massage oils for baby are those that are vegetable-based (instead of petroleum- or mineral oil-based). This is in case baby gets it on their hands and puts it in their mouth. Ideally, use an oil blended for babies, but simple oils such as coconut oil or cold-pressed sunflower oil are also fine.
The most important thing is to make sure baby is in the right mood and open to massage. Jo describes the best time as: "a quiet alert state". This means they're not too hungry, not too tired and happy to play and interact. An ideal time is pre- or post-bath. Working a massage into your baby's daily activities, if they're willing, is a lovely routine. It doesn't have to be their whole body, it could just be a massage of the feet one day, then stroking their back the next.
For younger babies that aren't crawling yet, you should always ask permission. "Massage is something we do with our babies, not to them," says Jo. "Asking" can be done simply by rubbing a little oil into the hands and showing them to the baby. They will either show positive cues, such as wiggling, smiling and eye contact, or they may grizzle and push your hands away. "It might seem a bit silly," says Jo, "but what we are doing is showing respect for their body." Once they are a little older and mobile, if they don't want a massage they will simply crawl away.
Newborn babies often don't like to be undressed or laid on their backs. "I recommend that the parents put baby on their chest (baby's tummy against them) and just stroke them while cuddling them close. There is nothing you can do wrong. "Whatever you do, however you touch your baby will be right because they will tell you if they don't like it," says Jo. "The most important thing is your touch, you are the person they want to touch them more than anyone else."
Avoid massaging your baby if they have a fever or are unwell.
Visit the New Zealand branch of the International Association of Infant Massage for more information and where to find classes.
Photography: Bryce Carleton
Models: Baby Lachie and mum Kristen
Words: Abby Lawrence
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