The incorporation of baby massage has become very important to our family. Not only does massage calm and soothe both mother and child, but a deep relational bond is established by the intimate and loving touch.
When Clementine (my first) was only seven months old, I had to stop breastfeeding due to back-to-back pregnancies and a milk supply that just couldn’t keep up. These “rubs,” as the now twenty-month-old asks for, really helped to reconnect us and maintain a deep sense of security and closeness. (And in case anyone is interested to know, she has actually unweaned and is now nursing again! Yay!)
Today I would like to rely on the expertise of New York State Licensed Massage Therapist, Jess Loewer, who I had the privilege of interviewing for this post. I have been excited to glean from her knowledge and share it with you, so, let’s dig in!
Q: Why is mother-to-child massage and touch so important?
A: When mothers feel confidant massaging their babies, both mum and babe have increased oxytocin (friend of serotonin, happy hormones secreted by the pituitary) and thereby decreased cortisol levels (stress hormone). This promotes, or bolsters the same chemical occurrence as breastfeeding, which is dire for bonding.
In utero, the first sense to develop is the sense of touch (between 3 and 8 weeks). The uterus is perfectly warm and, distributes firm, deep touch, providing a gestation of massage, essentially. This is why baby-wearing, swaddling, and holding/massaging are what new parents instinctively do to ease transition earth-side with familiarity. So, once out of the womb, touch remains the most important sense for earning trust with your newborn. They need to keep receiving loving touch input and movement from mom to feel secure physiologically.
Q: What specific health benefits can infants and young children experience from massage?
A: For babies in utero, newborns, toddlers, etc, massage is an incredible tool that has long been known to be an important part of caring for our children. Some benefits of massage specific to babies include:
- increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol levels in babies in utero
- reduced crying periods for babies experiencing colic (pair this with babywearing skin to skin [kangaroo care] and you’ve got a recipe for sweet silence)
- abdominal relief from constipation
- teething pain reducer
- recovery and rehabilitation from torticollis and talipes equinovarus
- relief from traumatic birth experiences
- reducing symptoms of GERD
- decreased postnatal depression in mothers
- parasympathetic stimulation
- higher cognitive scores
- fine & gross motor skills by improving proprioception
- increased stool frequency
- ameliorating neonatal jaundice
- increase in bone density
- weight gain in preterm infants
- relief from growth plate pain in toddlers.
…This is by no means an exhaustive list!
Q: How do you personally incorporate massage in day-to-day life with your son, Irving?
A: As a massage therapist mom, my son has the good life. He gets informal massage constantly, but naptime and bedtime are a bit more “structured,” although massage for children is a bit simpler than all of the modalities adults can be treated with.
We use a mixture of Swedish, Reflexology, Ortho-Bionomy, Thai (modified) and Craniosacral therapy techniques in our home. I use essential oils on reflexology points on his feet and ears and coconut oil for some Swedish effleurage (gliding strokes) especially when we are about to go outside (thank you minor spf!). Most of my practice on adults is Ortho-Bionomy, which is gentle but deep touch to realign structures; this is especially great for falls or sleeping oddly.
My husband also feels deep intentional touch is important; and along with playing rough, gives back rubs, bathtime massage, and lots of hugs. Other than dropping bathtime massage, I don’t imagine there will be a time he’ll outgrow therapeutic & loving touch.
Q: Is incorporating baby massage something any parent can do?
A: YES! Please do! If you feel best following a protocol or feel you need ideas, there are so many parent-infant massage classes all over the country! Find a licensed MT and enjoy caring for your baby with more intentional touch. Other than a having very basic understanding of infant anatomy, and some first aid, you can improvise quite a bit with what you know feels good.
Q: What are some practical tips and specific moves that parents can begin incorporating right now?
A: Place baby in front of you on her back. Make sure she is warm enough. Grab some oil (see following question for best oils to use) and rub into baby’s skin in long or circular strokes, from the ends of extremities towards the trunk. If you are familiar with meridians you can trace them with the pads of your fingers or palms.
I have found that there are some areas or strokes that my son will tell me he’s agitated with by moving my hand away from him. If your baby is old enough to do this or tells you in another way (maybe making a face or sound) honor their request! Find another area to work on or a different amount of pressure so they are comfortable.
I find just before sleep time the easiest to focus on massage. It’s naturally calming! If your baby is having trouble falling asleep you can try rubbing around their ears, making small circles with their thighs, or flanking their sides with your forearms and rocking them side to side. Find what your child responds well to and do that!
Q: What massage oils are best to use on babies?
A: The massage oils I love to use are jojoba, coconut, grapeseed, and shea butter. These are all light oils that offer omegas which are absorbed by the skin up to 100% and are really important for myelinating children’s nervous systems. Most importantly for me, though, is they are light, absorb quickly and don’t stain! Olive oil or Calendula lotion can also be used.
Mastered baby massage and looking to up your game? Add essential oils in! I stick to tried and true lavender, wild or roman chamomile, and carrot seed. I use lavender and chamomile as calming add-ins for bedtime, and carrot seed as a sun protector with coconut oil.
Q: Any final words of advice you have for moms that might feel intimidated to move from instinctive touch to a more intentional type of massage?
A: I’m not here to sell massage. It was important for so many reasons long before any of us were even thought of. But if you need the push, all I can really say is this can only bring about good things and a calm time between parent and child. Whether you decide to take a class, watch some youtube videos, or create a relationship with a massage therapist (much like a pediatrician or barber), massage is absolutely worth your precious time. It’s quite the investment, and it always pays dividends.