Touch Therapy for your Baby
written in Dec '14 by Erica Shane for BAMBI magazine, a publication for parents in Thailand.
“Touching is the first communication a baby receives, the first language of his/her development is through the skin.” Frederick Leboyer
Massage for Infants: a bit of history and common sense
Infant massage has been around since the beginning of time. Vimala Schneider McClure brought this ancient art to the USA in the 1970's, after she observed it’s positive effect on infants in India. She practiced specific Indian massage strokes on her own baby and was impressed by their benefits. McClure became the founder of the International Association of Infant Massage, and the author of "Infant Massage, a Handbook for Loving Parents". She includes techniques on swedish strokes, reflexology, and yoga along with the Indian massage strokes she learned, all which make up a dynamic curriculum for teaching parents the art of infant massage.
Parents naturally learn early on the effects of touching their baby. A baby in daddy’s arms can help soothe her back to sleep with his familiar smell and beating heart. Skin to skin can help stimulate your baby during a feeding, and will regulate your baby’s temperature and blood sugar levels. Remember, your baby has had constant contact with you since gestation. She has never had to ask for nutrients or affection inside your belly; it was automatic and continuous. Now, in your arms, she is really interested in connection and communication, and through touch and contact she is able to fulfill this desire. Babies, just like big people need to adjust to big changes, and can use a little help releasing their built-up stress. A little massage everyday can go a long way.
Benefits for Baby
Touch communication with your baby will normalize her physical and emotional life, helping to promote relaxation; improve sensory integration; aid in deeper and longer sleep; encourage mid-line orientation; assist in bonding and attachment; assist in vocalization; stimulate the circulatory and GI systems; relieve gas or colic; and enhance neurological development.
Touch therapy also stimulates the release of oxytocin, well known as the love hormone (both released in parent and child), and prolactin (promoting milk production in the mother). Oxytocin and Prolactin hormones stimulated by infant massage promote bonding and attachment between you and your baby.
A touch therapy session with your baby will help to relieve tension build-up from all the stimulation in her new environment. This world is so new to her. Her sleep/wake cycle will be regulated not only by her gradual adjustment to daylight and nighttime hours, but through therapeutic touch she will sleep better, I promise.
Infant massage will greatly alleviate gas and promote better elimination. It will release hormones for food absorption and will also release those handy endorphins- natural painkillers present in all our bodies- to ease emotional distress. Touch combined with vocalization helps reduce pain levels up to 80%. So sing with your baby, tell her a story, share with her exactly what you are doing, in just the way you would like to be spoken to. Being touched and caressed, being engaged, is food for the infant, food as necessary as minerals, vitamins and proteins.
Benefits for Parents
Infant massage undoubtedly contributes to a secure infant-parent bond. While the experience intends to resonate with the baby, it is simultaneously bringing out nurturing qualities in parents. This is why infant massage is recommended as a parent-baby interaction, rather than as therapy performed by a massage therapist. A professional may be able to show you the ropes, and from there your baby is all yours.
You will gain an increased awareness of your baby and her needs while engaged in touch therapy. It will trigger an increased confidence in parenting skills because you soon realize that it is you that will know your child more deeply than anyone. While learning to understand and respond to your baby’s cues, you inevitably become more comfortable in caring for your baby. It is an amazing tool for helping you and baby bond, and for mutual relaxation in general.
Touch as daily practice
Touch is the most essential communication channel for babies because they sense, understand and experience it more than any other stimulation. Babies need to be touched because it affects their mind and bodies' development, health and strengthens their bond with parents resulting in happier family life and facilitated development later in life. The benefits of this interaction are short term and long term. Physiological changes, action readiness, balanced emotions, discrete emotions, and most essential of all, love along with safety and security, are communicated to babies when they are touched. All parents can take time to learn about touch and use this knowledge to improve their children's quality of life. The key to successful infant massage is to remember that is it meant to be a pleasure for both parent and child. The focus of infant massage is not solely on the baby, but on the reciprocal interaction between infant and parent. Remember, infant massage is not done to an infant; it is done with an infant. A super pleasurable experience for all involved!
Getting set up
Make the setting as relaxing as possible. The room temperature should be cozy -- at least 75°F. Sit on your bed with pillows comfortably propping you up. Place baby between your legs, then strip her down to her diaper. Tuck a small pillow under her head and upper back.
Place a small amount of cold-pressed coconut or olive oil in the palm of one hand and rub palms together near your infant’s ear so that she may associate that sound with a pleasurable experience. Next, just ask, “Do you want a massage?” or “Are you ready for a massage?” Just watch her body language to know whether she is engaging or disengaging. She should be in a quiet alert state. If you sense that she does not want a massage, or is fussy and uncooperative, then try later. If it’s a go, place your hands gently on either side of her head, and take in a deep breath or two. Stroke your hands gently down the sides of her face, then continue down the sides of her body to her feet, and begin there.
Here are some of my favorites that I practice with my doula clients and their babies.
Foot Lovin’ Reflexology
Reflexology is effective and safe, it is based on the principle that reflex points found on the feet and hands correspond to specific organs, muscles, bones and body systems. Babies’ feet have undeveloped arches, and their skin and bones are usually fairly soft making reflexology an effective and fast modality for babies. By applying gentle pressure to congested areas in the feet, blockages can be released to restore the flow of energy to the whole body. Results for babies are often experienced immediately and can soothe a cranky baby or help to relieve tummy pains or constipation.
You can use reflexology as a natural healing therapy for acute illnesses as well as a preventative maintenance tool for good health. Because babies feet are much smaller than an adults, all of the reflex points are much closer together, so finger movement is very minimal. Also, babies feet are not fully formed, so the pressure used should be very gentle and nurturing. Time worked, is much shorter (5-10 minutes). A good sign that the baby has had enough….is when they withdraw their feet. They intuitively know when they’ve had enough, so please respect this. A good time to start applying some foot reflexology, is before a nap or after the baby’s evening bath, before bedtime. They will be most relaxed and ready. Try it while she’s asleep, feeding, being rocked to sleep, or while in the carrier! With older babies, try playing This little piggy went to market or Round and round the garden while pressing the relevant parts of the foot. A few presses here and there and you have a reflexology workout that is a natural extension of a fun game. Also try it during bath time.
- With your thumb, put gentle pressure on each toe, then from the toes, glide your fingers down the pad of the foot a few times, then press the toes again.
- Next, use circular motions to massage the sides of the heels.
- Gently press on the various reflex points; you will be giving tremendous support in the bodies natural ability to move into balance.
- Use stroking and milking massage strokes on the feet at the beginning and the end of the session as well as in between the stimulating reflexology techniques.
- You can also make up you own relaxation foot massage, the more natural it feels to you, the more relaxing it will feel to your baby.
Baby Long Legs
- Milking the legs: Hold one of your baby's thighs in both hands and make firm, deep strokes down both sides of her leg to the ankle, as though milking a cow. Once you reach her feet, use your thumbs to stroke up the arch to her toes. Give each toe a little squeeze. Repeat on the other leg.
- Rolling out the dough on legs: Gently "roll" one of your baby's legs from side to side with your hands, as if you were rolling out a rope of dough. Work your way from thigh to ankle. Repeat on the other leg.
Tummy Moves that Soothe Colic
While the jury is still out on whether colic stems from tummy troubles or temperament, you can help your child. These steps calm a child while stimulating his digestive system.
- Water wheel. Make hand-over-hand strokes with the pads of your fingers, as though you were doing a gentle doggie paddle, from the bottom of his rib cage to his lower abdomen. Repeat six times.
- Bend and bounce. Gently push your baby's knees up to his tummy. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds, then straighten his legs and lightly bounce them. Repeat the whole routine three times. (This stimulates his colon and gets gas moving)
- The sun and the moon. Trace a circle ("sun") clockwise on your baby's tummy with your left hand. With your right hand, periodically make half-moons along your baby's left side. (This directs air from his tummy to his colon, then out.) Walk your fingers across your baby's belly from his right to left side. Gently push his legs back into his tummy, and hold for another 10 seconds. Then release and march your fingers across his tummy one more time.
- Milk one of your baby's arms down to the wrist. If her hand is in a fist, gently stroke it to open it. Then run your thumb across her palm toward her fingers, and lightly roll each one between your own fingers. Repeat on the other arm.
- Roll each arm from shoulder to wrist.
- Ring around the arm: Form a ring with your middle finger and thumb around your baby's arm. Caress the armpit region and then work your way along the arm. Be gentle, especially at the elbow, an ultrasensitive area.
Oh that Baby face
Initially, babies tend to resist head and face massage, particularly during the first few weeks of life, and if the delivery was long or traumatic. Try this massage for three to four consecutive days. If your baby seems unhappy or cries, place still hands on his head to reassure him, then massage other parts of his body. Do this each time you massage him until he is ready for a head massage. Once babies are accustomed to these strokes, they tend to enjoy them greatly, and even more so as they get older. Lay your baby on his back with his feet closest to you. Use light strokes with little or no oil.
- Cup your hands around your baby’s head with your forefingers on his hairline. Moving your hands simultaneously, stroke backwards over the crown of the head until you reach the base of his skull. Move directly on to step two.
- Part your hands and bring them to the sides of his face. Stroke along the jaw line with your fingers until they meet at the chin. Repeat steps 1 and 2 several times.
- Position your thumbs at the centre of your baby’s forehead, just below the hairline. Stroke each thumb outwards in a straight line to the sides of the face. Repeat all the way down the forehead, as if you are drawing a series of lines with your thumbs.
- On the last stroke across the forehead, place your thumbs in the centre, just above the eyebrows, and glide them across to your baby’s temples gently, but firmly. Now make several small, circular strokes on the temples.
- Place your thumbs on either side of the bridge of the nose. In a single flowing stroke, move each thumb simultaneously downwards and outwards, along the upper part of the cheekbone to the sides of the face.
- Position your thumbs on either side of the bridge of the nose again, this time slightly lower down. Make a single sweeping stroke with each thumb from this position along the lower part of the cheekbone and out to the sides of the face.
- Position your thumbs side-by-side on the dip above your baby’s top lip. Pressing lightly, make small, circular movements with the thumbs. Glide each thumb outwards a little and repeat. Do this along the length of the top jaw line and out towards the ears.
- Place your thumbs side-by-side just below the centre of the lower lip. Using light pressure, make a circular movement with each thumb, then slide them outwards a little way and repeat. Do this along the lower jaw line, again, towards the ears.
- Hold the outer edge of the upper ear between forefinger and thumb. From this position, make small circular strokes down the outer edge of the ear to the lobe.
- Starting at the centre of the chin, hold the flesh at the bottom of the chin between thumb and forefinger and squeeze gently. Repeat along the length of the lower jaw line to the ear, then on the other side of the chin. Alternatively, pinch both sides of the chin simultaneously using both hands.
- Repeat the steps for the head massage above to finish the head and face massage.
Baby got Back
- The back stroke. Lay your baby face down across your lap with his head pointing to your left. (If he doesn't like being on his belly, try this move and Step 4 only once each, lengthening your sessions each day.) If you wish, remove his diaper and put a waterproof pad beneath him. Starting at his neck, stroke your hands back and forth across his back, moving them slowly down to his behind.
- The clean sweep. Anchor your right hand on your baby's bottom, then slowly sweep your left hand from his neck to his behind until your hands meet. Next, move your right hand to your baby's feet, and sweep your left hand down your baby's behind and the backs of his legs to meet it. Try to massage your baby daily so that it becomes a ritual. Find a time when he's quiet but alert, says Dr. Field, or do it just before bedtime. Either way, you'll be giving your child a helping hand.
Tips for Success
- Don't be intimidated. Baby massage doesn't have to be a formal affair, nor do you have to be an expert. Sometimes a quick foot rub or a light belly rub is going to be a perfect way to say "I love you."
- After baby's bath is a nice time for a massage. She's already naked, and her skin is still moist- the perfect time to apply oil or lotion.
- Put the oil in one palm and rub your hands together quickly to warm them, which makes for a more comfy, enjoyable massage.
- Use slow, rhythmic strokes when massaging your baby.
- Massaging the legs, stomach, chest, arms, face, and ending with the back, is one sampling of a natural progression of massage for an infant, try another order!
- The pressure used should be about the same as the pressure one can put on closed eyelids without irritating the eyes.
- With healthy infants, massage can be started as soon as you desire, beginning with a daily massage.
- Make sure she is quiet but alert, or just before bedtime.
- Make it a ritual; choose a time (or two) everyday that works for your entire family.
- Remember: Stay relaxed. Remember your energy transfers to her; so relax and enjoy this too.
She will say “Thank you” in a language only you can understand. What a gift!
Dr. Alan Heath & Nicki Bainbridge; Baby Massage: The Calming Power of Touch
Vimala Schneider McClure; Infant Massage, a Handbook for Loving Parents
Elaine Fogel Schneider; Massaging Your Baby: The Joy of TouchTime
Frederick Leboyer; Loving Hands: The Traditional Art of Baby Massage