Infant massage is the process of rubbing an infant's muscles and stroking the infant in a manner specifically designed for them. Although there are professionally trained and certified infant massage therapists, the obvious first choice to massage the baby is the mother, father, grandparent, or guardian. Equally important are the people who care for children outside the home such as, nurses on neonatal intensive care units (NICU) that work with premature babies and those who work with the disabled. The benefits derived from massage are applicable and advantageous for all of these groups.
Infant massage provides many benefits for the infant. A caring touch is good for everyone, but especially for infants who are new to the world and need the reassurance of someone special being there for them. However, there are some major benefits for the massage givers as well. They gain an increased awareness of the baby and his or her needs while enhancing the bonding process between care giver and baby. Research from experiments conducted at the Touch Research Institutes at the University of Miami School of Medicine and Nova Southeastern University has been cited for the clinical benefits massage has on infants and children. Touch therapy triggers many physiological changes that help infants and children grow and develop.
Studies have shown that infant massage alleviates the stress that newborns experience as a result of the enormous change that birth creates. They have just spent nine months in a home that fed them; kept them warm; brought them the oxygen they needed; took care of waste products; and provided a gentle rocking motion to soothe them. Now, the outside world has taken over, and things are not as simple as they were. Massage enables a smoother transition from the comfortable womb to that of humankind. The benefits of massage for the infant include:
- It helps baby learn to relax.
- It improves immune system.
- It promotes bonding and communication.
- It promotes positive body image.
- It decreases the production of stress hormones.
- It promotes sounder and longer sleep.
- It helps to regulate digestive, respiratory, and circulatory systems.
- It helps relieve discomfort from gas and colic , congestion, and teething.
The benefits of massage for parents include:
- It improves parent-infant communication.
- It helps parents to understand and respond appropriately to baby's nonverbal cues.
- It eases stress of parent who must be separated from child during the day.
- It promotes feelings of competence and confidence in caring for baby.
- It provides a special focused time that helps deepen bonding.
- It increases parents' ability to help child relax in times of stress.
- It is fun and relaxing for parents to massage their children.
There are additional benefits that can be derived from infant massage to elicit positive outcomes for premature infants and disadvantaged mothers. They include:
- Cross-cultural studies show that babies who are held, massaged, carried, rocked, and breast fed grow into less aggressive and violent adults who demonstrate a greater degree of compassion and cooperation.
- Recent research demonstrates benefits for premature infants, children with asthma , diabetes, and certain skin disorders.
- Mothers with postpartum depression have shown improvement after starting infant massage.
- Teenage mothers have shown improved bonding behavior and interactions with their infants.
Infant massage is an ancient practice used primarily in Asian and Pacific Island cultures because touch in these cultures is considered healthful both physically and spiritually. For example, the inclusion of infant massage into regular bath time is typical of the Maoris and Hawaiians. With the introduction of infant massage in the West in the late 1970s, it was tested to prove or disprove its efficacy. Dr. Frederick Leboyer, a French physician who advocated natural childbirth , supported the interest in infant massage with the publication of his photojournalistic book on the Indian art of baby massage. He believed that touch is the child's first language and that understanding spoken language comes long after understanding touch.
Infant massage was introduced formally into the United States in 1978 when Vimala Schneider McClure, a yoga practitioner who served in an orphanage in Northern India, developed a training program for instructors at the request of childbirth educators. An early research study by R. Rice in 1976 had shown that premature babies who were massaged surged ahead in weight gain and neurological development over those who were not massaged. McClure's practice in India, her knowledge of Swedish massage and reflexology along with her knowledge of yoga postures, which she had already adapted for babies, served to make her the foremost authority on infant massage. The International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) had its origins in 1980 and was incorporated in 1986 by McClure and her original seven trainers. As of 2004, there were over 30 countries that have chapters of IAIM and over 15,000 certified instructors have been trained in the United States.
Various techniques are used in infant massage, with the different strokes specific to a particular therapy. Special handling is used for treating a baby with gas and colic. Some of the strokes are known as Indian milking, which is a gentle stroking of the child's legs; and the twist and squeeze stroke, a gentle squeeze of the muscles in the thigh and calf. The light strokes often employed in regular Swedish massage are applied at the end of a massage. The procedure is not unlike certain forms of adult massage, but with extra care taken for the fragility of the infant.
There are also specific Chinese techniques of pediatric massage, including massage of children with special needs. In China, these forms of massage can be given by medical professionals, but parents are often taught how to do the simpler forms for home treatment of their children.
It is good to get a baby into a routine for massage. The time can be early in the morning, after a bath, or just before bedtime—the caregiver and baby know what is best and the time can be determined by the response. The room needs to be warm because the baby's clothes will be removed and infants have a difficult time regulating their body temperature. This is especially true for premature babies. It is preferable to have the room not be too bright with electrical light or sunlight shining on the baby's face. Research has shown that babies prefer to be massaged with oil such as a vegetable or plant oil. Traditional baby oils are mineral based, which are not readily absorbed. The two oils preferred by most massage therapists are grape seed oil and sweet almond oil. A caregiver can try both and see which is the most desirable. Generally, removing the diaper permits greater freedom of movement for the baby. For protection, the baby can by placed on a thick towel.
It is necessary to use caution when performing infant massage in order not to injure the infant. Strokes are made with the greatest delicacy, and appropriate techniques are taught by licensed massage therapists to ensure that the infant is treated with accepted physical touch. Anyone who is unfamiliar with handling a baby should receive appropriate instruction before beginning infant massage.
No adverse side effects have been reported when infant massage is done properly after careful instruction, or by a licensed massage therapist who specializes in infant care.
Many studies have been mentioned relating to the benefits of massage and there has been research published as early as 1969 relating to the topic. Hundreds of individual projects have been conducted throughout the world focusing on infant massage. Many of the studies are related to the benefits of massage and touch for premature infants and others born with such risk factors as drug dependence or cerebral palsy . Needless to say, the benefits are overwhelmingly positive and the research indicates that infant massage is increasingly recognized as a legitimate health care treatment.
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International Association of Infant Massage. IAIM Corporate Office, 1891 Goodyear Avenue, Suite 622, Ventura, CA 93003. (805)644-7699. Web site: http://www.iaim-us.com .
International Institute of Infant Massage. 605 Bledsoe Rd., NW, Albuquerque, NM 87107. (505)341-9381. Fax: (505)341-9386. Web site: http://www.infantmassage.com .
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Gentle Touch Parent-Child Program, LLC. Gentle Touch Infant Massage Video. Sylva, NC: Gentle Touch, Inc., 2004.
Linda K. Bennington, MSN, CNS