Carolyn and Gary Roller of Albuquerque, N.M., began massaging their daughter, Sierra, when she was just 3 weeks old. Gary kept it up when Carolyn returned to her job as a flight attendant, and Sierra, now 3 years old, still enjoys an occasional massage. “It made Gary feel more at ease to be able to comfort her that way when I was gone,” says Carolyn.
No parent can resist the temptation to cuddle and caress her newborn, but like the Rollers, more and more parents today are learning formal infant-massage techniques. The benefits for premature babies, including faster weight gain, greater responsiveness and earlier discharge from the hospital, are clear, and research also has found that infants of depressed mothers who received massage therapy gained more weight, slept better, and were less fussy and more sociable and interactive than infants who were just rocked.
Some claim massage also can help healthy, full-term babies. For example, according to Tiffany Field, director of the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institutes, “Moving both hands clockwise on a colicky baby’s abdomen can calm him.” And a 1998 TRI study found that massaged infants fell asleep faster and had better sleep patterns. Because these potential benefits are unproven, however, the American Academy of Pediatrics has no stance on the practice.
Yet experts agree that the main advantage is the parent-child bond massage creates — like the one fostered by breastfeeding, reading or singing. “It makes parents feel more competent, and the more competent you feel, the closer to your baby you become,” says Vimala Schneider McClure, founder of the International Association of Infant Massage and author of Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents (Bantam, 1989).
Infant-massage techniques are simple, and you can’t hurt your baby as long as you heed a few basic precautions. Still, it’s a good idea to learn how to do it by taking a class. (To find a certified instructor in your area, contact IAIM; see below.) All you need is 30 minutes or so; a warm, quiet place; some fruit or vegetable oil, such as apricot kernel or almond oil; or an unscented massage oil. McClure recommends the latter for infants because they need to bond with their parents’ smell, not be overwhelmed by artificial scents.
If you can, make the massage a predictable event in your baby’s day. “We advise parents to massage their baby every night when he is put to bed,” Field says.
And though it might sound silly, “ask” your baby for permission before you begin massaging him, McClure advises. Tell him it’s time for his massage and give him a cue that it’s about to start by swishing the oil in your hands. McClure says this lets a baby know early on that he’s in charge of his body and people should ask permission to interact with him in this way. This can help a child learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy touching as he grows older, she says.
Next, with your baby lying on either his back or his front (you can turn him over midway through the massage if you like), begin at his feet and slowly work upward using slow, gentle, rhythmic strokes. Keep oil away from his face so it doesn’t get in his eyes, be gentle with his joints, and skip his head, McClure says: Most babies become fussy when their head is massaged, and it’s better not to take risks in this area until the soft spot closes. Watch for any rashes, and change oils if one develops. As your baby gets older — 3–6 months old, for example — Field suggests changing the massage routine so he doesn’t get bored.
At first, you may feel a little nervous and clumsy, and your baby may fuss a bit. Just focus on his body language for cues indicating whether he’s tense or relaxed, says Peter A. Gorski, M.D., M.P.A., a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Signs of stress include arching backward, becoming fussy, turning pale or even bluish, hiccuping, vomiting and trembling. “Whatever you’re doing,” Gorski says, “the key to becoming a successful parent is to develop confidence in your knowledge of your baby’s behavior. This doesn’t mean studying a manual of what to do, but growing in the ways you understand your child.”
This is something the Rollers — who also massage their nearly 2-year-old son, Dakota, every night — came to learn. “He was apprehensive at first but warmed up to it,” Carolyn says. “We just had to figure out what type and how much touch was appropriate for him.”
In fact, perhaps the best way to think of massage is as a positive way of communicating with your child that lasts long after the time you’re doing it. While your baby will probably benefit most in the first six months of life, your loving touch can be a positive way of “talking” with him throughout childhood.