Babies enjoy human touch very much (much more than us adults usually do). They like being cuddled, kissed, stroked, held, and massaged. That’s why a baby massage is a soothing and stress-lowering experience that strengthens their bond with their care givers and even boosts their immune systems.
However, even tough babies have been massaged and given regular gentle physical affection since time immemorial, the importance of human touch in general and massaging in particular for a newborn has somehow been lost especially in the Western world in modern times.
Why Is Baby Massage So Important?
British anthropologist Ashley Montagu spent years researching the importance of human touch in the development of infants and their relationship with their mothers.
In his bestselling book “Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin” (1971), Montagu talks about the importance for the new mother of not being separated from the baby shortly after delivery, explaining that “When a baby is born, a mother is also born” because in order to develop maternal protection, she is hardwired to experience an increased need of intimate contact which often surpasses that of the baby.
Montagu goes on demonstrating the importance of human touch for newborns with associations taken from the animal kingdom. He pinpoints that pets are friendlier in adult years if they received plenty of physical affection in the very early years than pets who received little to none of that affection.
Decades later, a study from Duke University on a cohort of U.S. babies, who are more often than not deprived of human touch, found that massage has dramatic effects on the babies’ development, both emotionally and physically.
For instance, babies who received massaging gained weight faster, had lower levels of stress hormones, had better hormone regulation, and slept better than their touch-deprived peers.
Many nurses can confirm that preemies unconsciously seek human touch when they try to lean their tiny bodies against the incubator walls or place at least one of their limbs against the walls.
Baby massage is tied to incredible benefits in preemies, as numerous trials have shown that gentle touch can boost the babies’ developing immune systems and dramatically lower their stress hormone levels.
Animal trials have also shown a link between physical attention in early infancy and a higher number of brain receptors that help modulate the mood and lower stress hormone cortisol’s levels.
Another study found that U.S. infants who were touched deprived refrain from bonding via touch with their offspring and show very little physical affection toward their peers in their adult years.
Also, touch-deprived infants were 30% more aggressive on average and 3 times more likely to become rampant attention seekers in adulthood than the babies who weren’t touch deprived.
Other Baby Massage Benefits
Baby massage helps grow the early bond between a mom and her newborn. It is also a great way of improving a depressed mom’s mood shortly after delivery. Physical affection in infancy is also tied to better self-esteem and fewer mental and neurological issues in the baby.
Other surprising benefits of baby massage include a better awareness in both moms and dads of their baby’s needs and discomfort.
Baby massage is also a great way to help soothe a baby with an achy tummy. If the baby cries too much, gas might be the culprit. Give the baby a belly massage with massage oil or lotion. Then, put a warm bottle on the aching tummy (make sure that it is not too hot, so it is best wrapped in cloth).
Also, if your little angel has problems with his or her eyes in the first few months, such as watery eyes and swollen eye-lids particularly in windy conditions, it might be because there’s a straight obstruction of his or her tear duct.
A gentle massage should help fix this issue but ask for professional advice from a pediatrician on how to safely do it.
A gentle but firm massage can also help alleviate teething pain. Massage baby’s gums with a clean finger even if he or she might protest the first time. Most babies eventually become relaxed as the massage goes on.
Can I Give My Baby a Massage?
This question is on many new moms’ lips because they are worried that their baby might be too small for a massage. The answer is a resounding yes. As we previously said, baby massage has been linked with extraordinary benefits in preemies.
According to a recent study, preemies who received massage during their stay at the hospital had fewer complications and usually spent less time in the intensive care unit than their peers who weren’t massaged at all.
When to Give Your Baby a Massage?
You can start whenever you and your baby feel comfortable about it. Some pediatricians recommend waiting until 6 weeks to see if there are any health issues like developmental dislocation, in which case you should ask your pediatrician for counsel.
Also, do NOT massage the baby immediately after he or she has had a meal as you may cause the baby to throw up. It is best waiting around 45 minutes to 1 hour after feeding to give a massage. The best time, though, is before bedtime and after the last meal of the day.
Nevertheless, if the baby shows that he or she is not in the mood for a massage by becoming stiff or crying, postpone the session for another time.
Which Oil is Best for Baby Massage?
While some parents give the massage without any lubricants, other prefer a gentle massage oil or lotion. If you go for the latter option, pick an oil that is all natural, odor-free, and edible so that your baby can safely ingest.
Sunflower oil, sweet almond oil, and coconut oil are two best baby massage oils as they are very poor in oleic acid which usually dries out the skin. Baby mineral oils are safe too, especially on damp skin.
What’s more, both mineral oils and coconut oil have been found to help heal eczema in small children, which is an added bonus.
Don’t give a baby massage with olive oil because it contains too much of oleic acid and may cause skin dehydration, skin irritation, and even eczema if a baby’s sensitive skin. Olive oil is not recommended especially for babies with really dry skin.
According to some experts, up to six weeks of age, newborns don’t need baby oil or lotion on their skin, unless their skin is very dry.
If you’re going for a commercial option, our favorite all-natural baby massage products include
This product mixes the pros of a baby moisturizing cream and those of a baby lotion minus the cons. It is a fragrance-free blend of organic Calendula-infused grape seed and jojoba oils that won’t leave any greasy residue on your infant’s skin, like baby oils usually do, while permeating your bundle of joy’s skin as well as a lotion would.
This one is a bit pricier, but it is worth every ounce. This fragrance-free formula was develop by a group of MDs who are also full-time moms. It is happy blend of six plant-based oils, including rosehip seed oil and cranberry seed oil, enriched with soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients, like cucumber extract and kakadu plum. It easily absorbs, it a doesn’t leave a greasy film at all, and a little goes a long way.
For your peace of mind, all the ingredients in this baby massage oil are USDA organic certified. It is a 100% non-toxic product especially formulated for sensitive skin. It contains Ashwagandha, Neem, Haldi, and Majistha, four potent herbs heavily used for their healing, soothing, and nourishing properties in the Indian folk medical tradition for thousands of years. It makes a good remedy for diaper rash too.
How to Safely Give a Baby Massage at Home: 10 Easy Steps
- Get a baby oil massage or lotion ready (warming it up a little bit is great for the baby)
- Place the baby on his or her back on a large flat surface with plenty of space to move around; The changing table is not a good idea as the baby might move and fall off (you can perform the massage directly on skin or through clothing)
- Rub the oil massage on your hands making sure that there’s plenty of it on your fingertips (ensure that you don’t have jewelry on while you’re at it)
- Ask baby if it is ok to give him or her a massage (while this step might sound curious, it is important for the baby to get used to a new routine)
- Start with gentle moves (for older babies you can use firmer strokes) and if it is the first time you’re giving a massage maintain eye contact and keep talking through the entire session.
- Rub the baby’s shoulders, limbs, and gently work your way up to the core. Use clockwise motions on the tummy. You can spend a few minutes on each part of your baby’s body. Continue with the back. (Always massage your baby in an upward motion, from the limbs toward the heart, in order to improve blood circulation)
- While massaging the limbs makes sure that with one hand you are holding your baby’s wrists and ankles.
- Stay relaxed. Babies easily pick up on their mothers’ emotions.
- If baby doesn’t seem to enjoy it, stop and resume the massage session some other time. Some babies need multiple sessions to get used to being massaged.
- Enjoy yourselves!
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