Early intervention, neonatal, and perinatal providers understand the profound significance of nurturing a child’s sensory experiences from the earliest moments of life. One practice that resonates deeply in this realm is infant massage. Often perceived as a beautiful form of parenting, infant massage transcends mere bonding —it creates an optimal sensory environment, fostering a deeper understanding of babies’ behavioral cues and states while establishing moments of profound communication and connection.
THE HISTORY OF MASSAGE
The roots of infant massage delve into ancient history, dating back to 3000 BC in India. Considered a sacred facet of natural healing within Ayurvedic medicine, it served as a generational practice for healing, pain relief, and illness prevention. Throughout history, diverse cultures, including Asian populations like India and ancient civilizations in China and Egypt, incorporated massage as a rite of passage, recognizing its therapeutic value.
A SENSORY DELIGHT
When we delve into the sensory experience facilitated by infant massage, its multidimensional impact becomes evident. Tactile stimulation, the most apparent aspect, influences the development of the body’s largest sensory system—the skin— aiding temperature perception, pain modulation, and overall body scheme development. Additionally, the practice promotes proprioception by engaging babies in movements that develop body awareness.
Furthermore, through massage, infants experience positions, stimulating their vestibular system and allowing them to navigate gravitational relationships as they move. Even taste and smell, through the choice of oils and parental smell, optimise the olfactory connection between parent and child. Auditory and visual senses are also engaged, fostering connection, reciprocal language development, and visual tracking.
Importantly, infant massage satisfies a child’s interoceptive needs, addressing their regulatory requirements while nurturing the bond between parent and baby. This reciprocal interaction triggers a release of oxytocin, promoting a sense of well-being for both parties.
BENEFITS OF INFANT MASSAGE FOR PARENTS
Beyond its significance for babies, infant massage reaps numerous benefits for parents. Studies, such as those conducted by Fujita et al. (2006), Onozawa et al. (2001), and Ferber et al. (2005), indicate positive impacts on maternal mood, mother-infant interaction (especially for mothers with postnatal depression), reduced anxiety, and improved parent-child relationships.
BENEFITS OF INFANT MASSAGE FOR BABIES
The International Association of Infant Massage delineates these benefits into four primary categories. Firstly, interaction emerges as a cornerstone, fostering bonding, secure attachment, and facilitating a deeper understanding of verbal and non-verbal communication. This mode of interaction unveils a delightful approach to discerning a baby’s unique behavioural cues, engendering trust and confidence while engaging all senses in a multi-modal, pleasurable experience.
Moreover, massage provides stimulating effects, promoting circulation and digestive systems, enhancing hormonal and immune functions, fostering coordination, and amplifying both learning and concentration. Heller (1997) highlights the physiological impact, describing how massage stimulates circulation, fuels muscles with oxygen and nutrients, and mitigates stress hormones while inducing a release of endorphins —an impactful cascade of positive effects.
Relief constitutes another pivotal benefit as infant massage aids in alleviating gas, colic, constipation, muscular tension, teething discomfort, and congestion. Facilitating relaxation further augments sleep patterns, muscle tone, behavioural state regulation, and stress hormone reduction, rendering profound benefits for both the baby and the family.
The significance of preterm infant massage emerges through studies illustrating its cost-effective nature and multitude of advantages for medically stable preterm infants. The Neonatal Touch and Massage Certification (NTMC) by Kara Ann Waitzman stands out as an exemplary course for neonatal therapists, emphasizing improved handling skills, relationship-based care, and observation of infants.
Studies have corroborated significant reductions in mortality and infection rates among preterm infants receiving massage. However, it’s crucial to underscore that unless in exceptional circumstances, massage on preterm infants should primarily be performed by parents, with extensive guidance and support from healthcare professionals, considering the infant’s cues, medical status, and skin integrity, especially in neonatal intensive care settings.
Additionally, infant massage contributes to broader benefits for infant development, assuaging stress about separation, establishing an active parenting role, decreasing maternal depression, augmenting infant responsiveness, optimizing mother-infant interaction, and enhancing maternal competence.
CHOOSING MASSAGE OILS
The significance of respectful, culturally sensitive approaches extends to the choice of massage oils. We recommend organic almond, sunflower or coconut oil because of their purported benefits. Cultural appropriateness and respecting families’ choices should guide these decisions, ensuring a harmonious experience.
FOLLOWING YOUR BABY’S CUES
It’s vital to approach each session with sensitivity, aligning with the baby’s cues, individualizing the practice, initiating sessions in a calm alert state, and employing slow, gliding movements to ensure a soothing experience. The practice necessitates collaboration with families, honouring their preferences, and maintaining continuous communication during the massage process.
Incorporating infant massage into neonatal, perinatal and early intervention care demands a parenting-centric approach, acknowledging that it is a skill that enriches the relationship between parent and child. While guidelines might vary, the fundamental principle remains consistent—a respectful, attuned engagement with the infant to provide a positive touch experience.
Infant massage stands as a testament to the enduring wisdom of ancient practices, seamlessly integrating into modern care practices while offering a wealth of benefits for both babies and their caregivers. Its holistic approach and evidence-backed advantages reinforce its status as an indispensable tool for nurturing early development and fostering a deeper bond between parent and child.
Watch our video on how to give a preterm baby a massage here.
Watch our film on when to massage newborns