The benefits of infant massage
by Christina Van Starkenburg
Infant massage is a beautiful thing. When my oldest child was a baby I used to give him a massage every night before bed to help him calm down. Now, I use it with my newborn to help relieve his gas so he can be more comfortable and thus a happier baby. And while it brings comfort and promotes wellbeing for babies, infant massage is also good for parents—and not just because we get to sleep better when our children are calmer.
How it Benefits Baby
A registered massage therapist and instructor at the West Coast College of Massage, Amie McColl says, “The big benefit of baby massage is the skin-to-skin contact and the bonding.” But, while that might be one of the most obvious benefits, it isn’t the only one. Infant massage also helps babies learn to communicate with their parents both verbally and nonverbally, digest their food more easily, and even help them sleep better, like it did with my son.
Certified Infant Massage Instructor Pinky McKay explains on her website (pinkysbabymassage.com) that skin-to-skin contact is beneficial because you “stimulate your little one’s senses through skin contact, eye contact and your familiar smell.” It’s this nonverbal communication that helps your baby’s brain develop and form connections.
One of the ways massage helps babies learn to communicate is through the songs parents sing as they massage their children. “Singing is a great way of engaging the baby’s brain, and teaching them focus,” explains McColl. “Any song works, hearing the notes, tone and pronunciation help develop the brain, and it also helps them to refocus again.
So if they’re getting a little bit fussy or distracted, once you’ve assured their other needs are met, singing will help them focus again.”
Infant massage can also help premature babies and those who need lots of medical intervention grow and cope with the medical environment. One study by Tiffany Field looked at the benefits of infant massage for premature babies. The study showed premature infants who received massages gained more weight and were able to go home sooner than the babies who didn’t.
How it Helps Parents
While there are a lot of perks for the baby who gets to enjoy the massage, there are plenty of benefits for the parent who is massaging their baby. “For the parent, it’s the nonverbal and verbal communication, learning their baby’s cues, learning more aptly what their needs are during the massage and out in everyday life,” says McColl.
She points out that massaging the baby also benefits the parent who isn’t the main caregiver, because it can give them a good bonding experience. An Australian study showed babies were more likely to make eye contact, smile, coo, and touch their dads if they massaged them.
This communication helps parents feel more confident in their abilities because they learn the faint differences in the way their baby communicates – so when they hear their baby cry they’ll know a bit better what he or she wants.
Singing helps parents remember the different strokes, and helps the baby focus on what’s going on. While McColl has her go-to songs, she says it doesn’t matter what songs parents sing. Singing is important because it helps encourage a greater range of motion, and it helps with bonding. Studies have shown that singing releases endorphins and oxytocin, which helps people to feel happier, calmer and more connected with those around them. This is probably part of the reason that massaging their baby has been shown to help mothers with postnatal depression.
McColl recommends going to an infant massage class to learn correct posture and moves (like only massaging clockwise on your baby’s tummy), and to socialize with other adults. Classes can also help parents feel more confident handling their baby if they’re unsure, because they’ll learn how to hold and move their baby, and how much pressure their child can handle. “Take a class to feel how they can be held. They’re not as fragile as we think,” says McColl.
One aspect she stresses of high importance is making sure you ask your baby if they want you to massage them before you start. While they can’t verbally give you consent at first, they will through their actions, and after you’ve done it consistently they will learn what a massage is and will either get excited about it when you say the word or not.