Stroking your baby’s silky skin, meeting her trusting gaze and taking turns at listening to her ‘coos’ and ‘goos’ then responding, telling her, ‘ your tiny toes are like little pink peas,’ or ‘your legs are growing so long and strong,’ is more than just a delightful way to enjoy your little one’s company. Massaging your baby incorporates all the elements of parent -child bonding as it stimulates your little one’s senses through skin contact, eye contact and your familiar smell as well as hearing your voice and experiencing a focused response. This loving interaction and sensory experience is hard-wiring your baby’s immature brain for emotional and neurological development: as you touch and talk to your child and share eye contact, you stimulate the development of connections between nerve cells in your baby’s brain that will form foundations for thinking, feeling and learning.
Touch, especially, is a powerful nutrient for your baby’s development – it is the first sense to develop, just days after conception, and is important for a whole lifetime: it stimulates growth hormones as well as hormones that relieve stress and those that encourage bonding and attachment. By consciously spending just a few minutes each day massaging with gentle firm pressure, you can help your baby become calmer and happier. As well as releasing endorphins, those ‘feel good’ hormones that help us all reduce stress, massaging your baby will reduce stress hormones such as cortisol and this can also have positive effects on brain development. There is increasing evidence that high levels of stress hormones are toxic to infant brains and may have lasting effects on your child’s response to stressful experiences. Other studies show that babies with lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in their blood do better at mental and motor ability tests.
There is good news for tired mums too: a few simple strokes can lull your baby into a deeper, more restful sleep. According to Dr Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, ‘a massage just before bedtime is more effective than rocking at helping your baby fall asleep and stay asleep.’ Dr Field’s studies are affirmed by researchers from Warwick Medical School in the UK who looked at nine studies of massage covering a total of 598 infants aged less than six months. These studies showed that babies who were massaged cried less, slept better, and had lower levels of stress hormones compared to infants who did not receive massage. One of the studies also claimed that massage could affect the release of the hormone melatonin which is important in aiding infants’ sleeping patterns.
In another study conducted by Dr Field, premature babies who were massaged gained 47 percent more weight and were discharged from hospital six days earlier than babies in a control group, with follow up studies showing lasting effects on growth and development. For premature babies, the experience of touch is mostly painful as they endure various medical procedures and tubes. Melinda Nott whose baby Pippa, now 14 months and almost walking, was born at 27 weeks, says, ‘ I honestly don’t think Pippa would have been as advanced as she is if I hadn’t massaged her. Gently stroking her legs and back in the humi-crib, then later, kangaroo care (cuddling skin to skin) and massaging her tiny body helped us bond so much more quickly. It also helped me feel more at ease and confident to care for her even though she was very tiny.’
Infant massage is not only good for babies, it is good for parents too. Several studies show that mothers who suffer from postnatal depression improve when they incorporate infant massage into their daily routine, and an Australian study of infant massage and father-baby bonding, found that at 12 weeks old, babies who were massaged (by their fathers) greeted their fathers with more eye contact, smiling, vocalising and touch than those in the control group.
One of the most significant benefits of infant massage is that it can increase your confidence as a parent. According to infant massage instructor, Pinky McKay, ‘when parents regularly massage their babies, they become very aware of the subtle nuances in their baby’s communication, they become more respectful of their baby’s cues and this helps the baby feel secure and calm. After a few weeks of massaging their babies, I often have mothers tell me ‘I am not so affected by advice from other people any more – I know I am the expert about my baby.’