Massage for very young babies bestows important emotional and physical benefits, writes Petra Tip.
Human beings have a multitude of senses but out of the five most recognised ones - sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste - the sense of touch is the most highly developed sense at birth.
Through touch your baby will discover the world. Let's welcome your baby into this world with the touch of your hands.
The first massage-like experience for the baby is when the mother is in labour when contractions are supporting a vaginal birth. This will be the most powerful massage the baby will ever receive in his life, and we call it the birth itself. As the prolonged contractions massage their tiny bodies into this world it stimulates their peripheral nervous system and the major organs in preparation for life outside the womb. If the woman has a Caesarean birth then massage after birth would, of course, be more important since her baby did not receive that early stimulation.
Infant massage is nothing new. Historians have found evidence of it dating back more than 3000 years.
It is an ancient tradition in many cultures such as in India, Africa, the Pacific Islands and Latin America. Mothers in India massage their newborns as part of the daily routine.
Very often the art of baby massage has been passed down through the generations from mother to daughter and is today still considered an essential part of childcare in some cultures.
Touch is the most primitive and basic form of communication, you can even see this with some animals when they start licking their newborns intensely right after birth - this is a way of massaging newborns. If the babies are deprived of the intensive licking they often die.
Even though baby massage is an ancient art it became known in the western world only in the mid-to-late '70s, thanks to pioneers such as Vimala Schneider McClure, Dr Frederick Leboyer and Peter Walker.
Benefits of touch
The benefits of massage are both emotional and physical. Each time the baby experiences an emotional change the muscles react and tense up. Baby massage helps to relax the muscle that is linked to the emotion and therefore help relieve some of the trauma and anxiety which is tied up with birth and the world the baby has just entered.
Stimulating the release of endorphins and reducing the circulation of cortisol, a stress hormone in the bloodstream, will bring a general feeling of wellbeing throughout your baby's body.
Some of the benefits while regularly massaging the baby are improved circulation, stimulation of the lymph flow to strengthen the immune system, muscle relaxation and joint flexibility.
When to massage
From the first few days onwards you and your baby need to get to know each other and there is no better way than cradling him in your arms. Babies need to be held, stroked, touched, rocked and talked to so they start feeling welcomed and loved. Skin-to-skin contact will promote feelings of closeness between baby and parent, helping the baby feel content.
You can start introducing massage from around six to eight weeks. Your baby will be awake for longer periods and have gathered his senses in this new, unfamiliar environment. From eight to 10 weeks you could start a more formal massage using relaxed and rhythmic movements.
The earlier you start touching and stroking your baby the easier it will be for both of you to make the proper massage time more enjoyable.
Some babies need more time than others and might feel vulnerable when naked. Often these babies will respond well to soft stroking movements over their clothing and, as time goes on, they will allow you to massage them naked.
It's best to use vegetable-based organic oils such as grape seed, light olive oil or sunflower seed oil. These oils are unperfumed and not derived from nuts. Different cultures use different oils. Make sure the room is nice and warm and that the timing is right for both of you. Try to create a routine, massaging around the same time every day so the baby knows what is coming. Always stop massaging if your baby gets upset - give him a feed or a cuddle instead and then try again.
Often babies who are resisting massage repeatedly are the ones who need it the most. Be patient and persevere and you will see that after three or four sessions they start to enjoy being touched that way.
I would suggest a routine of massage, bath, feed then putting baby down to sleep. Often he will sleep longer as a result.
The massage I teach mums is developmental baby massage which is highly therapeutic and both preventative and curative. We massage according to the baby's own development, and one of the first signs of development is when baby lifts his head.
Lifting the head will strengthen and support the muscles in the neck. When this becomes more comfortable he will continue to strengthen his arms, shoulders and spine. The stronger he becomes the more he is able to raise himself, to open his chest for deeper breathing and increasing the flow of oxygen.
With a good deep breathing pattern his lungs will work at their best and it's also beneficial for the heart and all the other major organs. The stretching of the chest muscles also aids digestion. Giving your baby a lot of time on his belly while awake can prevent and relieve reflux, colic and constipation as this position stretches and relaxes the abdomen. Tummy time will help prepare the baby for crawling later on.
Massaging the belly
The belly is an emotional centre, if your baby experiences any fear, anxiety or other extreme emotion, his tummy will tighten in response. Baby may have picked up these emotions during pregnancy, birth trauma, or the change of environment from a safe place in the womb to the big wide world.
Massaging his belly regularly will help him relax and relieve stress. You can gently knead baby's tummy from side to side as soon as the cord has come off using a relaxed cupped hand. A relaxed belly feels soft and will help your baby to breathe deeper. The movement of the diaphragm will also help massage his digestive organs.
Avoid massaging baby's tummy when he is upset or has just had a feed. A good time is when you are changing his nappy.
Remember, massaging is something you do with your baby, not to your baby. Relax, enjoy and have fun.
1. Make stroking movements from left to right underneath the sternum down towards the legs, working with one hand at a time.
2. Place your well-oiled relaxed hands on the centre of your baby's chest and massage upwards and outwards over the shoulders and return the hands to the centre again.
3. Hold baby's hands and cross them over her chest then open them sideways and close them again, swapping the arms.
4. Massage the calf down towards the foot with one hand at a time.
5. When the baby is lying on her tummy make stroking movement from the top of the head down towards her feet, using long firm strokes.
Petra Tip is the founder of Shambala yoga and mother of four. She is a qualifed pre-natal yoga teacher, Hatha yoga teacher and a Chi Nei Tsang practitioner. For more information contact Petra at: [email protected].
Petra Tip runs four-weekly developmental baby massage courses on Friday mornings in Titirangi, West Auckland. She has a certificate in Developmental Baby Massage from Peter Walker, a leader in developmental baby massage. For more info go to www.thebabieswebsite.com. Petra also runs baby massage courses on weekends for fathers and their babies, promoting a stronger bond between them and the opportunity to "get in touch".