Every time you touch your baby, his skin (and yours) produces a spike in oxytocin levels. Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” is not only responsible for boosting breastmilk supply and encouraging your little one to latch, but is also incredibly important to bonding.
This hormone is one of many in the body chemistry that naturally unfolds from nurturing touch, each vital to your baby’s healthy development.
The key to these almost-magical benefits of nurturing touch isn’t in the holding of your baby. That feels good, too, but the physical chemistry changes happen with skin-to-skin contact. This is why Kangaroo Care works so well for premature and ill newborns, literally able to take the place of incubators in developing countries, and why maximizing skin-to-skin contact can really jump-start breastfeeding in a struggling infant.
But skin-to-skin contact isn’t just for babies who need a little extra help. It’s good for all infants. A fun way to infuse your day will a little more nurturing touch is through infant massage.
Today, there are many resources to introduce parents to infant massage from in-person classes to illustrated books, to online resources. Here to give an overview of how infant massage came to be, as well as some hints to getting started, is Vimala McClure, literally the “mother” of infant massage credited with coining the term.
Q: Where did you discover infant massage?
Very early in life, I began to practice yoga. When I was 21, in 1973, I traveled to India to learn to become a yoga teacher. I worked in an orphanage during the day, and a monk would come at night to teach us. I noticed all the children in and out of the orphanage were friendly, relaxed, inclusive, and responsible. They were always smiling and laughing, and I often saw a small child walking around with a baby on his hip.
One night, after class, I was walking around the inner compound of the orphanage. Through the doorway where the children slept, I heard someone singing. I peeked in and saw a 12-year-old girl massaging a baby. Intrigued, I went to observe, and I asked her about it — I knew some Bengali, her language. She said it was customary for babies to be massaged every day. She taught me how, and I began to think that perhaps the children were so friendly and relaxed, because they had been massaged like this when they were babies.
It made a great impression on me, and after I returned home, by coincidence, I was given a copy of the late Ashley Montagu’s book, Touching.
In 1976, I had my first baby. He was colicky and cried all the time.
Using what I knew from India, from yoga, from my friends who were massage therapists and reflexologists, plus my observations of my own baby, I put together a massage routine that included Indian strokes, which go from the center outward to release tension; Swedish strokes, which go from the extremities to the heart to promote circulation; and yoga movements and massage that help the digestive system and aid in flexibility.
I developed a special routine for colic, which resolved my baby’s colic in 2 weeks.
Q: What benefits do babies receive from massage?
So many! Generally, we break it down into these categories:
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.
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.
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. Because we use a kind of “conditioned response” called touch relaxation, it teaches your infant to relax in the face of stress and upon the voice and touch of parents.
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.
5. Family Dynamic
Infant massage encourages the involvement of siblings and extended family in baby care. It promotes a relaxed environment in the home, communication, and respect.
6. Societal Change
Imagine a world where people are trained to be good parents…where newborns, older babies, toddlers, and children were routinely given healthy, loving massages every day…where the entire culture valued positive, nurturing touch, respect, and empathy. There would be reduced infant health care costs, reduced child abuse, reduced behavioral problems in children, and reduced violence. When I founded the International Association of Infant Massage, this is what I imagined: changing the world, one baby at a time.
Q: What tips do you have for parents just getting started with infant massage?
Before the massage begins, parents observe the baby’s cues, and then give a cue that massage might be happening. We teach parents to swish the massage oil between hands, then hold hands up to baby, saying, “May I massage your legs, feet, tummy, etc.?” and observe the baby’s cues. The first time, it often seems kind of silly to parents. But after that, babies understand quickly, and through their body language, give — or not — their permission.
Building trust and empathy from the start is very important. Learning their baby’s cues and newborn reflexes helps parents understand their babies and respond appropriately.
We encourage parents to massage their babies every day. Thus, they develop confidence in their parenting choices and are more likely to keep balance in their family life. We encourage fathers to learn the massage. Infant massage includes fun and play, and parents can take a sigh of relief when they have provided this beautiful, intimate time for their little ones every day. Most often, massage becomes a part of family life, with new siblings learning to help massage their little brother or sister, and receiving a different sort of massage as they grow older.
Children learn how to be, from their parents modeling that behavior. Infant massage naturally makes for kind parents and children. The daily interaction of loving, nurturing touch affects everybody deeply.
These days, we talk a lot about infant mental health, and the things that go into making sure our children are thoughtful, nurturing, empathic, kind people. There is a kind of automatic generation of warmth, empathy, and kindness in the family, just from doing this seemingly simple practice when the children are babies — and beyond.
Vimala McClure, who coined the term “infant massage,” is the founder of the International Association of Infant Massage and Infant Massage USA, and the author of several books including Infant Massage.