You may have heard about the common benefits of infant massage. It helps babies with gas and colic and it helps calm them down from crying and to sleep. But before we talk about specific benefits of infant massage, there is one guiding benefit which is the foundation for everything else. Infant touch and massage helps a baby’s brain to grow.
Babies are born still needing to make finishing work of their brains. At birth, they have only 25% of their ultimate finished size of their brains. Babies operate out of their primitive brain and need the help of their caregivers to regulate their emotions. As humans grow, we develop our rational thinking brain and this helps us solve problems and cope with stress. How a little human learns and develops connections in their nervous system towards this goal is through their caregivers’ responsiveness to them, through emotions.
It is not always easy to be the adult in the room when our baby is crying. We have our own stresses in life. However, if we can remember that we are the one with a more developed brain, we can help our little ones. There are many nonverbal ways we communicate with our babies like cooing, picking up and moving with, and giving general loving attention. Touch, though, is a powerful communicator. It is the first sense we develop and the last sense we lose in life.
Intentional and loving touch in the form of massage brings us in tune with our babies, and with the help of the chemicals produced by our brains, helps make sure that we are in a caring mode. Even the mother who is affected by depression can come into alignment with their baby just by going through the process of massaging her baby. Those in the father role who may not be the ones feeding their baby, can tune in very easily through this special time set aside for touch. Infant massage has been known to help adults feel more in synch with their babies because in the process of touch and massage, we are reading baby’s cues, connecting through the eyes and through the skin.
Babies do experience stress. The practice of infant touch and massage can help in the moment, but it also can lay down the networks in their brain to be able to soothe themselves, which is something every parent can get excited about. Infants can learn to help calm themselves through their own experience. If they have been exposed to lowered levels of stress hormones through whatever means then they are less likely to have a fight or flight response to emotions both now and in their future. A flip side of stress is FUN. Infant massage can be a wonderful opportunity to be playful, sing and babble, talk, gaze into their eyes, and bring joy to ourselves as well.
So, what else can touch and massage do for babies? Beyond the attunement and brain development benefit we just learned about, there is a long list of good things we know about massage, both for the infant and for the growing child. One of the most common benefits of infant massage talked about is in making the digestive system work better. There are so many nerves in our gut. Not only can massage to the belly move gas and help baby digest food more comfortably, but massage to any area of the body can send calming signals to the digestive system to move food through with less gas and constipation. Parents with babies prone to colic and the inconsolable crying are often the most common group to adopt the practice of infant massage. Premature babies who receive touch and gentle massage are known to gain weight significantly better than those who do not receive it. This is one of the most medically important benefits known for infant massage.
Many parents also talk about how helpful massage is for reducing teething pain and for relieving sinus congestion, using special strokes on the face. In addition, massage of any muscles helps not only the body area being touched but also helps improve blood circulation and the movement of our bodies natural clearing of lymph or waste products. When babies start using their muscles more in being mobile, massage can help relax in a way that promotes better sleep above and beyond the ordinary way that massage provides for that.
One of the more fascinating aspects of how massage can boost a baby’s brain power is that the touch they receive with loving attention leads to a baby being more aware of him or herself; it helps them in orienting to the space around them. Early on in life, touch tells the brain, “this is my leg; it belongs to me.” This helps with coordination and later, boundaries. It helps with integrating the information that comes through the senses. This is one reason why a variety of therapists who work with children with disabilities have infant massage as one of their best tools to teach parents and caregivers.
There are clear benefits for the one giving the massage as well. In addition to the strong bonding that develops between you and baby when you spend this time of loving attention together, there is also the benefit of reducing stress. By becoming more comfortable in reading your baby’s cues through touch and massage, you may grow to feel more confident in your ability to parent. For those parents who are separated from their baby for periods of time, the practice of touch and massage can offer a special way to connect deeply. This way of communicating without words can grow in the parent/caregiver relationship into the future. Even if a parent was separated from their baby initially at birth and had times of continued separation, massage can help make up for lost time.
Infant massage is simple to learn and does not have to be a complicated thing to add to your day with your baby. Some parents add it to what they do during diaper changes or at bath time, or just before naps or bedtime. Some parents build it into a routine every day, and others make it their own special way of connecting in the moment when needed. Either way, the benefits of infant massage are most definitely those needed and treasured ingredients for the making of a healthy human.
Rebecca Leeman, CNM offers infant massage classes once a month on Saturday at the Downtown office. CLICK HERE FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION. Register with Kathleen Briley as you would for our other classes.