If you’ve enjoyed the benefits of prenatal and infant massage, you’ve got Vimala McClure to thank. Mothering.com had the chance to talk one-on-one with her.
Vimala McClure, founder of the International Association of Infant Massage, brought the concept of prenatal and infant massage to the western world. I’m honored to let you know more about this extraordinary woman through our recent interview.
Please tell us about your introduction to infant massage at an orphanage in India.
In 1973, I was 21 years old. I had been practicing yoga and meditation for a few years, and I wanted to be a yoga instructor. The only way to do that, at the time, was to travel to a training center in Northwest India. The training center was also an orphanage; I was expected to work in the orphanage by day, and a yoga monk would come in at night to train us.
During the time I was there, I made a discovery that was to substantially redirect my life. I loved the children. They always came rushing to me, wanting to hug me, to sit on my lap, and for me to sing with them. I noticed that all the children I saw, both in and out of the orphanage, were delightful. They were open and relaxed and always smiling. In spite of their extreme poverty, they were happy. They had a relaxed way of being in the world, and I often saw both boys and girls walking around with a baby on their hip.
One night after class, I was walking around the compound. I approached the sleeping quarters of the children and peeked in. A girl, about 12 years old, was massaging a baby. I waited until she was finished, and went in to talk to her. She told me that massage, especially for babies, was traditional. An Indian mother regularly massages everyone in her family and passes these techniques onto her daughters. At the orphanage, the eldest massaged the little ones nearly every day. I asked her if she could show me how to do it. She happily agreed, and allowed me to massage the baby, who was so relaxed and sleepy. I learned how to use oil, warm my hands, and do each stroke. The baby connected with me immediately. She gazed into my eyes, smiled, and drifted off to sleep.
I was profoundly touched by this experience. I thought about it a lot. I began to think that maybe the children in India were so relaxed in the way they carried themselves because they had been massaged every day in their infancy. It was a type of nurturing I hadn’t seen in the United States. Though I noticed how cuddly, relaxed and friendly the Indian children appeared to be, it remained for me to become pregnant a few years later before I started seriously thinking about the advantages of infant massage. During my pregnancy, I became interested in all aspects of childbirth and infant development, and began studying everything I could find. I read the book International Association of Infant Massage by Ashley Montagu, and I was determined to massage my baby as part of our everyday life. I read through the bibliography and decided to find the research upon which Montagu’s claims were based. I had a feeling that this information could be translated to humans. Montagu had made this connection throughout his book, and thinking about massaging my baby was suddenly very exciting.
To make a very long story a bit shorter, after I had massaged my baby for several months, I decided to share this wonderful art with other parents. I put together massage strokes from the Indian massage that I knew, from yoga, from reflexology, and Swedish massage. I designed a curriculum for a five-session course and began to teach. After a couple of years, I wrote a manuscript which, through many magical moments, was published by Bantam/Random House in 1979 (I revised and updated the International Association of Infant Massage six times, including a new edition coming out next year). I founded a nonprofit organization, the International Association of Infant Massage, trained instructors all over the U.S., then trained seasoned instructors to be Instructor Trainers. We now have chapters in over 70 countries, and a Circle of Trainers with over 50 Instructor Trainers from around the world.
What are some of the benefits of massage in pregnancy?
In nearly every bird and mammal studied, close physical contact has been found to be essential both to the infant’s healthy survival and to the parent’s ability to nurture. In studies with rats, if pregnant females were restrained from licking themselves (a form of self-massage), their mothering activities were substantially diminished. Additionally, when pregnant female animals were gently stroked every day, their offspring showed greater weight gain and reduced excitability, and the mothers showed greater interest in their offspring, with a more abundant and richer milk supply. Evidence supports the same conclusions for humans.
According to the latest research, women who experience stress, worry or panic attacks before and/or during pregnancy are more than twice as likely to report that their babies cry excessively. Experts suggest an infant’s excessive crying, if not from gastrointestinal colic or other physiological problems, may be due to the mother’s production of stress hormones during pregnancy, which cross the placenta and affect the development of a baby’s brain. A parenting specialist, Dr. Clare Bailey, said: “Mothers can easily get into a traumatic negative cycle when worrying about a newborn. The more they worry, the less they sleep and calm themselves, and the more they worry. Anxiety can make them hyper-vigilant, distressed by crying, and they can feel rejected by their babies. It intuitively sounds likely that a calm mother who feels relaxed, comfortable, and confident will be more likely to help a baby to self-settle. Babies can pick up emotional cues very early on.”
The research, published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, looked at nearly 300 women who were in the early stages of pregnancy. They were asked about their history of anxiety and depression, and were interviewed during their pregnancy and until their children were 16 months old. A large percentage of women with anxiety disorders reported excessive crying following the birth. Further analysis found that babies born to women with an anxiety disorder were significantly more likely to cry for longer periods. It is possible for stress hormones to cross the placenta and contribute to an infant’s crying spells.
Mothers who have meaningful skin contact during pregnancy and labor tend to have easier labors and are more responsive to their infants. In addition, research has shown that mothers whose pregnancies are filled with chronic stress often have babies who cry more and for longer periods than those whose pregnancies were peaceful and supported.
What are some of the benefits of infant massage?
I think about the benefits in this way:
- Interaction: Massaging your baby promotes bonding; it contains every element of the bonding process. Infant massage promotes a secure attachment with your child over time. It promotes verbal and nonverbal communication between the two of you. Your baby receives undivided attention from you, he feels respected and loved. It is one of the only times that all of his senses are nourished.
- Stimulation: Infant massage aids in the development of your baby’s circulatory, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems. It aids in sensory integration, helping your baby learn how her body feels and what its limits are. Massaging your baby helps make connections between neurons in the brain, which helps develop her nervous system; it also aids the generation of muscular development and tone, and contributes to her mind/body awareness.
- Relaxation: Regular infant massage improves sleep, increases flexibility, and regulates behavioral states. It reduces stress and stress hormones and hypersensitivity. Massaging your baby creates higher levels of anti-stress hormones and promotes an improved ability to self-calm. It teaches your infant to relax in the face of stress. The “Touch Relaxation” which I developed is used throughout the massage; it is a particular way to teach your baby to relax upon your cue.
- Relief: Infant massage helps with gas and “colic,” constipation and elimination, muscular tension, and teething discomfort. It also helps with “growing pains,” organizes the nervous system, relieves physical and psychological tension, and softens skin. It helps release physical and emotional tension, balances oxygen levels, and provides a sense of security.
Is massage helpful for preemies and babies who are in poor health?
The premature baby’s first contact with human touch may bring pain; needles, probes, tubes, rough handling, bright lights—all sudden, after the warm protection of the womb. One of the first things parents can do to help and to begin bonding is to touch and hold their baby. This wonderful expression of caring contributes to both physical and psychological healing, not only for babies but for parents, too. Much of the anguish of those first days and weeks can be minimized if parents can feel some sense of control.
My book, and particularly the new edition (to be released next year) has a large chapter on this subject. The International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) is the world leader in nurturing touch, primarily due to our focus on observing cues that are in alignment with a baby’s ability to receive touch. We have pioneered and refined touch concepts over decades through working with various people, including professionals in many cultures globally.
Through their cues, preemies tell you what kind of touch they are able to receive at any given moment. While the research conducted by Tiffany Field at the Touch Research Institute in Miami, U.S.A. showed good outcomes from massaging babies in the NICU, I have come to believe that actual massage techniques are better when used after the baby is home, and that holding techniques—communication through touch—are better for premature babies. The same goes for medically fragile babies.
Some of our senior instructors began to notice that premature babies were giving “disengagement” or stress cues when being massaged. Cherry Bond, a Neonatal Nurse and IAIM Certified Infant Massage Instructor, developed a “5-Step Dialogue” that helps parents to do something with their babies rather than to their babies. She says, “Every cue is like a single word in a sentence, which is part of a whole story that parents can use to participate in a unique dialogue with their baby.” Certified Infant Massage Instructors with IAIM can help parents through this 5-Step Dialogue, which includes how to observe babies’ cues, how to understand the concept of permission, and various ways to touch and hold the baby. In most cases, we recommend that parents do not massage the baby until they are home and the baby can be considered a “newborn.”
“Kangaroo Care” is now being used in NICUs everywhere. The idea is for parents to hold their infants on their chest—ideally, skin-to-skin. With infants that need a lot of medical intervention, this can be difficult, but not impossible. Nurses can help you place your baby on your chest, with whatever tubes and wires are connected to her. Research shows that stable parent-infant bonds are fundamental to healthy child development. For parents of babies born prematurely or with special medical needs, this early bonding can be interrupted by the complex medical care required in a NICU. An ongoing study conducted at a large metropolitan NICU, presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) National Conference & Exhibition in 2015 shows that a little skin-to-skin snuggling between mothers and babies can go a long way toward reducing maternal stress levels. The study examined mothers’ stress levels before and after they held their babies “kangaroo style” (skin-to-skin inside the pouch of the parent’s shirt) for at least one hour, and the results were remarkably positive.
Can you tell us about a few mothers and babies you’ve worked with over the years?
This is a bit difficult! With years of teaching and magical moments happening in just about every class, it’s hard to choose! I worked for several years with a pediatric practice in Denver, Colorado. When parents brought in a colicky baby, the doctors would refer them to me. I would go to their homes and work with them, first teaching them the Colic Relief Routine I developed, then, after the colic was resolved, I taught them how to massage their babies. One mother was very distressed about her crying baby. “He just doesn’t like me!” she said. I could tell she was disengaging — withdrawing from her baby.
After talking with her about colic and reassuring her that she was doing fine as a mom and her baby was simply in pain, I showed her the Colic Relief Routine, and asked her to do it at least once a day (preferably twice) for two weeks, and I would return in two weeks. When I returned, I saw a beaming mother, wearing her baby on her chest. She told me that at first her baby fussed and cried through the routine, but after a couple of days, he began to pass gas and fecal matter toward the end of the routine. Then her baby began “working” with her, bearing down when she massaged him, followed by yoga postures that are part of the routine. She said that afterward, he would pass gas and his crying diminished. At the two week mark, he was a happy baby, no longer crying for hours every day.
She learned how to do the full massage, and no longer had to do the Colic Relief Routine. Both mom and baby loved the massage, and I could see the bonding happening before my eyes, whereas before there was withdrawal. What would have happened if she hadn’t learned these techniques? This question made me more committed to making infant massage a part of everyone’s baby care repertoire.
Can you tell us about how you incorporate principles of yoga, meditation, and the ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching into parenthood?
I had been practicing and teaching yoga and meditation since I was 20 years old. After my children were grown (actually, when they were teenagers), I studied Taoism and the Tao Te Ching— a book of aphorisms by the ancient Chinese warrior-philosopher Lao Tzu. I was very inspired by this book and what it had to say about how a warrior should conduct himself. Halfway through, I saw that much of the advice in this little book would be timely for mothers as well. Being a good mother is being a warrior in many ways.
Our family went on a vacation to Kauai, and I brought the book with me. We drove up to the top of the highest waterfall in the world. There was an open space with a couple of tables and chairs, overlooking the incredible mountains and ocean on Kauai’s south side. My family went hiking, and I stationed myself in this space. The beauty was astounding, with a foggy mist hanging overhead, and views out over the ocean as far as I could see. I went through the Tao te Ching and transliterated every aphorism into something that would relate to motherhood. I finished the book in one day.
The publisher New World Library — whose authors have included Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, and Shakti Gawain — published The Tao of Motherhood in 1991, 1994, 1997, and a 20th anniversary edition in 2011.
Can you share a bit about your own journey, transmuting significant difficulties into deeply loving and useful work?
I worked very hard to bring my vision — of infant massage being an integral part of our culture — to fruition. I also traveled to India many times during those years — from 1976 through 1988. In 1989, I had a Traumatic Brain Injury from a bad fall in my art studio, which was followed by a severe case of fibromyalgia (which was, then, practically unheard-of). I was unable to teach for the next 24 years; the illness — chronic, widespread pain that never ceased — was exacerbated by complications and completely disabled me. I stayed in touch with my growing organization, advising, writing, and attending conferences when it was possible. Having practiced meditation and yoga since my early 20s, my spiritual life got me through this fiery test of my body, mind, and soul. In 2014 I had a miraculous recovery; one day I woke up pain-free and totally healthy in every way. My doctors were, and continue to be, astounded.
I was able to step back into my organization, continue writing and working to bring awareness of infant mental health and infant massage to the world. Today I am healthy, energetic, fit, and deeply happy with my life. I live alone now, and my adult children and three grandchildren live fairly close. I am delighted to be able to be “me” again for my kids. They, too, are amazed and happy to “have mom back.”
If you’d like to learn more about Vimala McClure and the work she does, visit the international website or U.S. site. To find a Certified Infant Massage Instructor go to iaim.net or infantmassageusa.org.