The gentle art of baby massage has been a fundamental part of care-giving traditions passed from parents to children for generations. All over the world babies are held and rocked, massaged and caressed. Not surprisingly, cross-cultural studies have shown that in societies where infants receive the most positive physical attention, adults tend to be less aggressive and violent, and more cooperative and compassionate.
Skin is arguably an infant’s most important sensory organ, and it is definitely the most sensitive. This sensitivity is one of the earliest developed body functions, and stimulation of the skin is essential for adequate physical and psychological development. Stimulating a baby’s skin is also a means of communicating without language—it conveys love and care through touch. The sensory stimulation of massage speeds the processes of the brain and nervous system, enhancing rapid neural firing in the brain and improving brain-to-body communication. In less technical terms, baby massage improves not just an infant’s physical development, but also her emotional growth.
The positive effects of massage are most evident in premature babies. When given regular massage, these babies gain weight, and their motor skills and mental functions develop more quickly. Their hospital stays are shortened and their chances for survival improve. Studies have shown that pre-term babies who are massaged three times a day (for as little as five days) fare much better than those who don’t receive massages, both in terms of neurological development and weight gain.
Massaging is also a great method for soothing infants suffering from colic, an abdominal discomfort that is caused by an excess of gas in the stomach and intestines. Massage helps to expel the gas and to relieve related pain and discomfort.
Parents also benefit from the giving of massage—it is a relaxing and rewarding way to communicate and connect with their baby.
Baby massage can be done in the morning when the baby first wakes, or at night before putting your baby to sleep. Make sure to use a gentle touch while performing the massage—your baby’s body is still delicate and growing, and she cannot be massaged with the same intensity you might use on an adult.
To begin, sit on the floor with the soles of your feet together, forming a diamond shape with your legs. Drape a soft towel between your knees and over your feet. Undress the baby down to her diaper and place her on the towel, cradling her head on your feet. Your hands should be warm. Use an unscented organic almond oil or coconut oil for the massage. Warm the oil between your hands before beginning the massage. (The oil shouldn’t be hot or cold and you should never pour oil directly on the baby.) After the oil has been warmed, gently apply it to the baby’s skin, starting at the head and moving down to the toes. If the baby cries or becomes irritable, stop the massage. If the baby responds well, continue massaging her, body part by part. Talk to the baby throughout the massage and watch closely for any signs of discomfort or pain on her face.
Massaging the Abdomen
Slide your palms and fingers in a hand-over-hand circular motion working from the rib cage down. Next, slide both hands around the abdomen in clockwise movements. Using the same circular motion, massage lightly with only your own fingertips. To relax a tense and bloated abdomen, try the “I Love U” stroke: Trace the letter “I” down your baby’s left side. Then trace an inverted “L,” stroking across the belly along the base of her ribs from her right side to her left and down. Trace an inverted “U,” stroking from low on the baby’s right side, up and around the navel, and down the left side. Finally, using fingertip pressure, try “walking” over the abdomen. Hold the baby’s knees and feet together and gently press her knees up toward the abdomen. Repeat 3-5 times.
Massaging the Chest
Slide both hands along the rib cage from center to sides and back again, rather like you are flattening the pages in a book.Using a crisscross pattern, stroke diagonally from one side of your baby’s hip, up and over the opposite shoulder, then back down to the hip.
Massaging the Arms and Hands
Hold the baby’s wrist with your left hand and massage with your right hand. Gently make a circle around the baby’s arms with your forefinger and thumb. Beginning at her armpit, slowly move towards her wrist and massage back from wrist to armpit. Next, using both hands, hold and gently squeeze the arm and hand, all the way up to the wrist. Massage the baby’s wrist and palms with your fingertips.
Massage the Head and Face
Cradling your baby’s head in both hands, massage the scalp with your fingertips, as if you’re shampooing. Be careful to avoid the fontanels (soft spots). Massage the forehead and cheeks with your fingertips. Use your thumb and index finger to massage the ears.Place your thumbs between your baby’s eyebrows, and stroke out. Again using your thumbs, stroke gently out over baby’s closed eyelids. Massage from the bridge of the nose out over the cheeks with your fingertips. Use your fingertips to gently rub small circles on either side of the jaw.
Massaging the Back
Lay the baby on her tummy across your outstretched legs. Keep her arms above her head (not at her sides). Massage small circles on back using your palms. From there, massage upwards to the base of neck, then draw your hands down to the lower back. Repeat this stroke a few times to cover the entire back. Using your fingertips, massage small circles down one side of baby’s spine and up the other. (Be careful to avoid pressing directly on the spine.) With the same small circular motion massage her shoulders. Work your way down the baby’s back with your fingertips. Massage her buttocks with slightly larger circular motions. With the pads of your fingers, lightly rub small circles all over the back. Then gently move your fingertips down her back, over her buttocks and legs and down to her ankles.
Massaging the Legs
Lift one of the legs by the ankle. Relax the leg by lightly tapping the upper thigh. Hold the baby’s ankle with your left hand and hold your right hand in a C-shape, thumb down, around her ankle. Maintaining this hand shape, stroke the baby from ankle to thigh. Next grasp the baby’s thigh with both hands, placing one atop the other, and from there stroke downward from hip to foot with both hands rotating in opposite directions (as if you were gently wringing a towel).On the sole of her foot, use a thumb-over-thumb motion to massage from heel to toes. Use your whole hand to stroke the bottom of her foot from heel to toes. Stroke the top of her foot, and gently squeeze and pull each toe.Massage around her ankle, making small circles with your fingertips.Roll her leg between your hands, as if you’re rolling dough. Finish with small, gentle massage circles on the foot and toes.
After the massage, wipe the baby clean of excess oil with a warm, damp towel. A thorough massage may put your baby straight to sleep—be ready with PJs and a blanket, and prepare to enjoy a restful night, for baby and for you.
Dr. Bhargava Boddu, ND