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Your Baby and the Power of Touch

The Benefits of Baby Massage

I remember when my niece was born some fifteen years ago and I was exposed to the age-old tradition of infant massage. My mother religiously went every morning to bathe her granddaughter and massage her the way she had learned from her mother-in-law.

As an inquisitive young adult, I was fascinated by this and made a resolution that if or when I had babies, my mother would do the same for mine.

Years later when my son was born, the midwife arrived for a home visit. She was accustomed to Indian and Muslim practices and the first thing she said was, “Granny, I hope you have not massaged the baby yet as I love to watch when the grannies do that.”

My mom laughed and slowly set out a clean towel for the baby. She then lovingly heated some olive oil and warmed her own hands before she carefully undressed my one-day-old son.

He started crying as all of this was new to him but he calmed down immediately when she placed her warm oily hand on his skin. We watched as she calmly massaged every part of my son’s body and I saw her eyes sparkle as she began to bond with him.

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There seems to be little information on the history of infant massage. It is an ancient practice in Eastern cultures and its benefits to both the parent and the infant have recently been rediscovered.

Crying is often said to be the language of babies. There is little else they can do in those precious first days. Likewise, touch is the adult’s way of communicating with a baby.

Infant massage is a holistic way through which parents can learn about parenting and infants can learn about being loved and honored.

“Touching is the first communication a baby receives,” says Frederick Leboyer, author of “Loving Hands”. “The first language of its development is through the skin.”

To a baby, touching is talking.  With eye-to-eye and skin-to-skin contact, and the exchange of smiles and other facial expressions, baby massage combines the important aspects of bonding between parent and child. When you engage an infant in a massage, you begin to listen to the infant. You slowly become accustomed to his cues and cries.

Massaging is one of the most beautiful ways to nurture the relationship between a mum and her baby. It is also a wonderful way for fathers, brothers, sisters and grandparents to share quality time with the new family member.

Physical and Psychological Benefits of Massage

Besides massage being an excellent way to bond with your baby, it comes with physical and psychological benefits for thebaby as well. In “The Baby Book”, William, Martha, Robert and James Sears explain the benefits in details.

To help him breathe rhythmically: Infants often have irregular breathing patterns, but because the skin is the largest organ of the body and is rich in nerve endings, massage can help this.

To stimulate growth-promoting hormones: It’s well known in pediatric circles that a baby who is touched thrives. Most parents feel that thriving only means weight gain or growing bigger. What it really means is for the baby to reach her full potential.

Interestingly enough, nevertheless, a study by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine found that premature babies who receive three 15-minute massages per day for five days showed a 53 percent greater daily weight gain than unmassaged babies.

To build her brain: Studies show that newborns receiving extra touch experience enhanced neurological development. Since the brain grows fastest in the first year, it’s a good time to give your child extra touch.

To boost his immunity: A study of ten-week-old infants showed that those whose backs were massaged by their mothers experienced fewer colds and fewer occurrences of diarrhea. Conversely, touch deprivation negatively affects the immune system. Touch enhances secretion of digestive hormones and helps the baby’s digestive system work more efficiently.

To relieve stress: Researchers believe that one of the causes of colic is sensory overload. A stressed baby will cry. Infant massage can significantly reduce this stress by reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Being a holistic approach, infant massaging has benefits for the parent as well, Sears et al explain, including:

  • Improvement of one’ssense of well-being
  • Reduction of blood pressure
  • Reduction of stress
  • Improvement of overall health
  • And it really gets the love blooming between you and the baby. There is no better benefit than that.

How Many Times Are Enough?

Most experts agree that once a day is adequate, preferably at bath time or at bedtime.

However, if a baby seems crabby or restless on a particular day, calming him down with the touch of your hand is always worth a try for a second time. If a baby is over-tired, it is best to leave the massage for a time until he is well rested since she might not respond positively to stimulation when tired.

As the child becomes more active through crawling and walking, massaging may be reduced to once or twice a week as desired. A toddler may enjoy a rubdown before sleep each night or after bathing.

Your Baby and the Power of Touch - About Islam

Quick Practical Guide on How to Massage

Choose a comfortable place and limit distractions. Look the baby in the eye, hold her legs, and move them in a cycling movement while speaking to her softly. Cover your baby in edible oil, such as almond oil or avocado oil. I would not recommend commercial baby oils.

As a general rule, use gentle, light strokes (not so light as to tickle, though). Your motions should move from the center of your baby’s body outward. For example, when massaging arms, start with the shoulders and move out towards the hands. Also, balance any massage movements you perform—if you first massage your baby’s right leg, be sure to massage her left leg next.

With your baby lying down in front of you, his feet pointing towards your tummy, move your hands towards you in a soft paddling fashion over your baby’s belly. Repeat this gentle motion with one hand while gently holding your little one’s feet up (legs bent) with your other hand.

Next, push your flattened thumbs in an outward motion from your baby’s belly button, and spell out “I Love You” with I-L-U-shaped strokes while telling your little one how much you love him. After several spellings, end your massage by moving your hands in clockwise circles over your baby’s belly. Finally, gently walk your fingertips over your infant’s tummy from left to right.

Arms and legs:  Rub using a gentle twisting or “milking” motion. Roll the arms and legs between your hands and press your thumbs gently into his body. Finish with light strokes to the leg.

Ideally, seeing someone doing this is the perfect way to learn how to massage your baby. So call your granny or elder and rope them in and soon you will become an expert. At the same time, you will be helping to keep this beneficial tradition alive.

First published: February 2015

About Fatima Bheekoo-Shah
Fatima Bheekoo-Shah is the author of "Saffron" (A collection of personal narratives by Muslim women), a freelance writer and book reviewer. She resides in Gauteng, South Africa. A book nerd and avid reader, Fatima is always looking for her next great read.