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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Power of Touch: Infant Massage

The simple action of touching someone is a powerful thing, right from when baby is born we are encouraged to have skin to skin contact with them. This is because something as simple as a touch can have a potent effect on how our babies do. Babies who are enabled to have direct skin to skin contact with their mothers after being born have more stable temperatures, more consistent heart beat and breathing rates and a more stable blood sugar. Many hospitals are now instigating kangaroo care as part of their premature baby care because being close to mother has a positive effect on baby’s vital signs and improves their ability to thrive. 

Touch can also benefit the mother enabling her to bond via release of oxytocin and promoting the instinct to nurture. Oxytocin is not just essential in labour it is also responsible for bonding, love and milk let-down. Because of this this skin to skin contact and touch has been shown to have a positive impact on breastfeeding, both in initiation to breastfeed and to the promotion of longer duration in the breastfeeding relationship. Touch is one of the key elements to promoting and protecting the parent/child dyad.

Most health carers and scientists tend to agree, there isn’t anything bad that can be said about touch.  In fact touch is a key part of human development which is why baby or infant massage can be such a positive part of the parent/child relationship. Diane Ackerman, the author of 'A Natural History of the Senses,' says, "Touch is a sense with unique functions and qualities ... Touch affects the whole organism." and this has been shown time and time again to be true. 
Tiffany Field,  who is a leader in the field of touch, found that premature newborns receiving just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47 percent more weight than premature infants who had just received standard medical treatment alone. Even as adults we do not thrive well without touch as this article shows. 

I did a baby massage course of with a group of lovely ladies from my antenatal class when my first son was just little. It was such a lovely way to bond with him. It can be hard as a new mother to know what to do with your child when they are brand new. Often it becomes a cycle of sleep cry feed cry change cry cuddle jiggle and you feel like you lose touch with your baby. Infant massage is an ideal way to find a little place of peace in the maelstrom of new motherhood – for both of you, and don’t under estimate the benefit massage can have for fathers and their newborns, it’s the ultimate way of bonding. While mothers and fathers both respond to oxytocin and have equivalent amounts, men have different oxytocin triggers, touch being one of the primary ones. Massage is a potent tool that can help promote sleep and reduce fussing and crying.

Baby massage as we know it now has its founding ayurvedic principles, though there is evidence to show it is a key part of infant rearing in many cultures, in fact the practice of massaging babies is an art passed down from generation to generation and has been evidenced in parenting dating back over 3000 years and in regions as diverse as India, Africa, Asia, and  even in New Zealand in Rongoa Maori. The art of touching your child in a healing way is lovely to watch in practice and witnessing the response in your child is a powerful communication.

Here are some key reasons to give baby massage a go:

  • Relaxing. Loving touch lessens tension, fussiness and irritability. Massage is also a wonderful way to lessen stress in parent and baby.
  • Digestion. Digestion is aided  by massage as it can provide relief from gas and colic.
  • Bonding. Touch conveys nurturing and love, the essential ingredients for emotional and physical growth and well being. It also releases oxytocin which is the bonding hormone.
  • Growth. Studies have shown increased weight gain and immune function.
  • Communication. Parents become more aware of baby’s nonverbal cues. One-on-one communication instills a baby with confidence of love and security.
  • Sleep. As your infant learns to relax and release stress, sounder and longer sleep is often the end result.

Here are some of the techniques I learnt. It’s important to note that I am not an infant massage expert and am offering this information only as an introduction to the skill. The key thing is to remember that infant massage is about the touch and not any therapeutic manipulation.  Most strokes are done with an open hand and are gentle broad manoeuvres.

It is a good idea, though not necessary to use an oil or massage balm, almond oil or olive oil are both good though almond is to be avoided for children with a history of nut allergies in the family. I prefer my own homemade balm made out of beeswax and olive oil because it doesn’t drip and takes longer to absorb so you use less. It is also warmer on the skin.

Before beginning it’s important to ask permission of your baby, people who are not familiar with the concept of communicating with your child even at very young ages  might feel awkward or a little dorky doing this (I don’t need a lot of help in this area) but it is amazing how quickly a baby will pick up on your cues and respond. My way of asking would be to rub my hands together as I warmed up the balm and verbally ask if he would like a massage. Whenever he saw me do this he would relax and coo. If you signal your intent to massage and your baby turns their head away or protects their body with their arms or even cries then now is not a good time. Try again later.

Notice the eye contact that baby is making

You also want to set the mood, gentle music or quiet is preferable as well as dim lights and a warm room. Try and block off any drafts as baby can get cool very quickly when they are naked. The basic principles of baby massage are to start from the feet up and to use gentle non invasive strokes.  You can do as little or as much as you want to while baby enjoys it.

Legs leg massage is a great entry point and is very non threatening for baby, these techniques also translate well to older children who might get growing pains or stiffness from sport and play. It is a lovely way to reconnect with older children.

1.       Indian Milking: Start at the legs and move your hands down from the thigh down to the ankle twisting as you go, much like you would wring water from your hair. Your hand will be in a ‘C’ shape and one hand will follow the other, as one finishes at the ankle the other is starting at the top. This is known as Indian milking. You want to imagine the stress and tension moving down and out of the legs.

2.       Rolling: Then you want to release the legs by cradling them in your hands and roll them gently like you would roll out a playdough snake and then gently rocking them to encourage baby to relax.

3.       Stroking the ankles: Moving on to the ankles you can use your finger tips to gently use little strokes up  across the foot and towards where the ankle meets the foot, this area has a growth plate and can be sore so this is a really lovely relaxing stroke for growing babies.

4.       Piggies: Next up you can wiggle each on of the toes and sing the little piggy song, you can sing whichever song you want but this one lends itself nicely to toe wiggling

5.       Walking fingers: On the sole of the foot use your fingertips to gently knead  wand walk them over  the whole foot pad.

6.       Hooked finger: Then using the crook of your finger stroke the sole of your baby’s foot, this can stimulate the plantar reflex.

7.       Swedish milking: Finish up the legs with Swedish milking which is identical to Indian milking but instead moves from the ankle to the hip, as a rule all Swedish massage moves from the extremities to the heart and this promotes lymph movement which is a passive system generally.

Stomach – stomach strokes are fantastic for trapped lower wind, colic and fussing. They are beneficial for constipation and bloating. Because of the positioning of the large intestine it is vital that all of the strokes follow a clockwise direction otherwise any gas issues can be exacerbated. Gentle clockwise strokes can help move everything in the right direction.

1.       Waterwheel: Using the sides of your hands, make paddling strokes on baby’s stomach, one hand following the other, as if you were scooping sand toward yourself. Start below the ribs and move into the lower abdomen. Stroke hand over hand with a gentle but firm pressure.

2.       Thumb stroking: With your thumbs at the level of baby’s bellybutton, stroke out to the sides. Be gentle and do not poke.

3.       Sun and Moon: Your left hand begins by making a full circle on baby’s stomach, moving clockwise. Your right hand makes a half circle or crescent moon in a clockwise direction, then lift your right hand up and over your left hand making the continuous circular ‘sun’ strokes.  Repeat the sun moon pattern.

4.       I Love You: This is a three-part stroke, which spells out the message ‘I love you’ to the baby. Baby loves a gentle voice saying ‘I love you’ as you share this stroke. To make the I move the hands down the left hand side of your baby’s torso (their left not yours) then an upside down and backwards L shape that runs across the bottom of the ribs and follows the path of the I. The last stroke is a U shape that goes up the right side of baby’s torso, across the bottom of the ribs and then down the left side.

5.       Palm roll: Putting the heel of your palm on the right lower side of baby’s chest slowly roll the hand like you are placing a palm print on their belly applying a gentle but firm even pressure as you rock the hand over.

Torso - often baby will protect their chest with their folded arms, this is a natural response.  Hopefully the leg massage will have relaxed them sufficiently but if they haven't yet relaxed you can help them by starting with the open book stroke.

1.       Open Book: . Stroke from the center to the side of baby’s chest, following the rib cage, as if you are smoothing the pages of a book using the flats of your hands. Bring your hands around in a heart-shaped motion to the center again and repeat the stroke.

2.       Butterfly: Begin with both hands at baby’s sides, at the bottom of the rib cage. Move your right hand across baby’s chest diagonally to baby’s right shoulder. Massage the shoulder very gently. Move your hand down across baby’s chest to its original position. Repeat with your left hand moving up and across to baby’s left shoulder. Follow one hand after the other, rhythmically crisscrossing baby’s chest.

Arms – the arms are much like the legs, most of the techniques are identical, though babies may not be as relaxed letting you rub their arms so approach it gently and with respect

1.       Indian milking: Do as you did for the legs, starting at the upper arm and moving down to the wrist

2.       Rolling: Roll the upper arm gently between your hands and then carry the weight of the arm and gently jiggle to release

3.       Stroking the wrist: Gently using your fingertips stroke the top of the hand towards the wrist

4.       Fingertips: Using your fingertips gently stroke from the base of baby’s fingers to the tips, using a gently pincer grasp to get both sides.

5.       Palms: Using your thumb trace circles on baby’s palm

Back – baby has to be comfortable on their tummy to use these strokes, brand new babies may not enjoy this . Some alternatives to lying them on the floor are to lay baby across your knees or lie back with them on your stomach.  While your baby is on their stomach you can talk to them to reassure them you are there.

1.       Back and forth: Begin with both hands together at the top of baby’s back. Glide your relaxed hands back and forth, in opposite directions, going down the back to the buttocks, then up to the shoulders, and back down again.

2.       Swooping: Cup baby’s bum with one hand. Beginning at baby’s neck, your other hand glides down smoothly to the buttocks. Repeat the swooping stroke several times
3.       Long swooping: Support the baby’s feet with one hand and repeat the swooping strokes with your other hand moving all the way down the legs to baby’s feet.

4.       Circles: Use your fingertips to massage small circles on both sides of baby’s spine moving all over the back. Be sure to massage small circles on baby’s hips and buttocks, too. Avoid doing these circles directly on the spine.

5.       Combing: With your hand open and fingers spread apart, gently comb baby’s back starting at the neck and moving to the bum. Your strokes become gradually lighter each time. Repeat several times. End with a very light feather touch. You may also begin with baby’s head and stroke down the back. Be aware that with very little babies they should not be given light touch massage as it can be over stimulating . Keep strokes firm and in full contact until baby is older at around the 5-7 month mark.

Finishing – finish whenever baby tells you they are ready. Whether that is by starting to fuss, turning their head away or closing their body up.

1.       Finish by picking up your baby and cuddling them. Be careful as they can be quite slippery! 

I I hope this helps you establish a loving communication of touch with your baby. Enjoy.


  1. He's delicious!!!!! I need a baby to massage, nek minute... (that means I'll have one in 9 months time Or I'll steal yours:))

    1. I bet he'd love some nuggles when you visit next.