Infant massage has enormous benefits for the baby receiving the loving touch, but also for the person giving the massage. This practice may be relatively new in the Western world, but infant massage has been practised for thousands of years by other cultures.
All humans respond to positive touch and babies are no different, even newborns. Pikanini founder and owner Karen van Zyl started massaging her newborn daughter Lisa just 20 minutes after she was born and says, “the paediatrician couldn’t believe how well she picked up weight. Lisa was born at 37 weeks and had a very low birth weight.”
Gift of love
Studies indicate that baby massage promotes proper growth and healthy development in infants because it stimulates nerves, increases blood flow and so also improves the immune system. Ailments like colic or constipation can be alleviated and digestion can be improved. Even chest congestion can be eased and feeding can be better; antenatal depression can also be controlled. Importantly, massaging your baby promotes parent-child bonding.
Benefits for baby
Karen says that in addition to health benefits, infant massage “improves the balance and inner equilibrium of the baby. It conveys acceptance, love and security. The baby learns how to relax and be calm. We teach the ‘touch relaxation technique’, which also helps to calm babies when they go to the doctor for injections. Moms learn how to calm their babies using their voices. If baby is calm and relaxed, the injection isn’t as sore.
“Infant massage hugely improves sleeping patterns too – my daughter slept through from six weeks. You just have to get your baby into a routine of massaging them as part of their bath time and bedtime routines, and you will see a huge improvement in their sleeping patterns.”
In addition to the benefit of relaxation and pain relief from colic, spasm or gas, infant massage is also a valuable tool for stimulation and interaction with your baby. Should a baby have cerebral palsy, stimulation through massage can build muscles and improve muscle tone. Interaction between mother and child is always close during massage and hugely strengthens the bonding process, while conveying a sense of love and security to the baby. The child’s self-esteem and self- image are promoted; baby relaxes and becomes calm, and feels a heightened sense of well being.
Karen also teaches expectant moms to massage their babies while still in the womb “because then baby is used to touch. Depending on whether the baby is premature or not, we don’t massage babies before 27 weeks gestational age. But even before then you can still do a lot, such as using ‘holding and containment techniques’, which is not a massage as such. The baby can still feel the positive touch, but you won’t give them sensory overload which a full massage could do.”
Benefits for parents
Apart from enabling bonding, relaxation, communication and deepening the parent/child relationship, infant massage is also fun. And when baby sleeps and eats better and is more alert and involved with his environment when awake, parents have an easier and more enjoyable time with their newborn.
Best time and conditions
“You should massage your baby in the calm-alert state, when they are happy to interact. This is usually just after they have woken up, but moms know exactly when this time is for their child. Never massage your baby when he is crying, hungry, over stimulated or tired. Moms need to look out for these cues too.”
Getting into a massage routine enables your baby to feel secure and comfortable because he knows what to expect. Every mother knows best when their child will be most open to receiving a massage. The room should be warm, cosy and comfortable as babies are not good at regulating their own body temperature.
“Don’t answer the phone, rather play a soothing lullaby or classical music and burn lavender candles,” suggests Karen.
“I use vegetable based cold pressed oil like grape seed oil or sweet almond oil (not traditional baby oil as it contains minerals) because it is absorbed by the skin very easily and it is non toxic, so if baby rubs his eyes or puts his hands in his mouth, it’s harmless. It may be irritating but it can’t do any harm. For a newborn baby you want him to get used to the parents’ smell, so if you use lavender oil you will only confuse him. Grape seed oil doesn’t have any smell, so baby can learn to know the parents’ smell easily. From three or four months old, some scented oils are fine as long as they are not toxic for baby.”
Karen says that the practice of infant massage is beautiful in its simplicity. “If you don’t have grape seed oil, use vegetable cooking oil, powder or even the usual baby products. Massage on the floor for safety reasons, so if baby starts wriggling around he can’t fall. Just make sure the conditions are conducive and give him your undivided love and attention.”
No special qualifications or experience are necessary to massage your baby. “As long as the touch is loving, your child will benefit from it,” says Karen. “However, we do not advise you to massage your baby if he is too small (less than 27 weeks since conception) because you can put baby into sensory overload. Also never massage when your baby is ill or vomiting, has skin conditions, fever or dehydration. Don’t massage your baby if he is hungry, sleeping or crying.
“Importantly, always ask baby for permission to give him a massage. It is simply a sign of respect because it’s his body and private space and you don’t want to intrude on that. Asking for permission also teaches baby the difference between good and bad touch, and that there should be respect when touched. So it teaches them about their own little bodies too.
“Use the time after a baby’s bath when you are going to put cream on his body anyway. Make it a positive time and use slow elongated movements and firm pressure to interact with your baby. Make eye contact and tell him you love him for 20 minutes or so. Even if you don’t know exact techniques, any positive touch is better than no touch.”
Use long slow strokes and always keep one hand on your baby and maintain eye contact with him. With warm hands and oil gently rub baby’s scalp in circles with your fingertips, avoiding the ‘soft spot’. Move up the nose to the forehead and down to the cheeks in a circle. When massaging the torso, place your hands flat on baby’s chest, move them upwards and spread them over the rib cage. Then stroke the abdomen in a U shape. Rub both arms gently from shoulder to wrist and then each finger. Do the same for the legs all the way to the ankles and the feet. Then turn baby over onto his stomach and give long smooth strokes all the way from the shoulder, down his back and legs.
Signs to stop
If baby splays his fingers or toes, avoids your gaze or looks away, he is stressed, so apply less pressure or stop the massage completely. If he clenches his fists in front of his chest it means he doesn’t want to be touched there. Rather take it slowly and build up the time massaging your baby. Some children are extremely sensitive to touch. Most important is that the touch must be positive and enjoyable for baby. That’s what it’s all about.
ByKaren van Zyl
MA (MW) Play Therapy
For a Pikanini Baby Massage Instructor in your area contact Karen on 0827019767 or email firstname.lastname@example.org