What is Infant Massage?

May 11, 2018

Because I have been studying to be an infant massage instructor, and because when that process is complete, we will be offering classes to families, I thought it appropriate to write an article about Infant Massage, its history, significance, and benefits. I’ve found the whole process so interesting and would love to have known about massage when my children were babies. There are different programs to become an Infant Massage Instructor. I have been learning the methods developed by Vimala McClure,  the founder of the International Association of Infant Massage, so I am writing from this perspective.

In America, infant massage was not a traditional activity or very much thought of until the 1970’s, but elsewhere in the world, it has been a very old tradition ingrained in cultures as a normal part of a child’s upbringing. Vimala was working in India where she saw babies having regular massages and noticed the positive effects. Her interest was piqued, and she studied their methods as well as those from Sweden, incorporated her knowledge of yoga, reflexology and her personal experience of massaging her own children to form a protocol of massage for newborns and up. She taught others her method, and they formed an organization to teach instructors (like me!) who then instruct families how to massage their babies.

This method is generally taught in 5 separate classes, once a week, but can be done differently depending on the situation, such as if the baby is hospitalized. Of course, much time is spent on learning the massage strokes, beginning with the feet and legs, then learning other parts of the body each class – belly and chest, arms, face and back. The families learn many other things to enhance the bonding process, which is an aspect of the parent-baby relationship that will affect the child all of their lives. Learning how to communicate with their baby, how to recognize their signals when they are trying to communicate with their parents is also covered as well as many considerations to enhance the massage experience.

So, why massage a baby? What are the benefits? As mentioned above, babies who get massaged regularly deepen the bonds with the person who massages them and forms a greater attachment. The respect shown by the parent when learning to communicate with their baby helps the child learn self-worth and trust. Physically, massage can help relieve gas, constipation, colic and other discomfort. It stimulates the child’s language development especially as the parent talks, sings or coos back and forth with the baby. The body’s systems are stimulated such as the circulatory, nervous, respiratory, lymphatic and digestive systems. The baby’s sensory systems are stimulated as well (especially the tactile and proprioceptive) causing greater sensory integration. Babies who are regularly massaged have been found to sleep better, are more calm, show less signs of stress, have greater abilities to cope with environmental demands and show better regulation of behavioral states. There’s more, but those are very compelling reasons already. Research continues to find more and more benefits of regular massage.

One of the nicest aspects of learning infant massage is that you can use the techniques with your child throughout their growing years, making changes based on their tolerance and needs. It is appropriate for all babies, including those with special needs, but it should be taught by a well-trained instructor. Hospitals with Newborn Intensive Care Units (NICU’s) are starting to offer massage instruction by trained professionals, and it is giving parents who may be feeling helpless in other regards something very positive they can do for their baby. Aside from that, these families’ ability to start forming that bonding and attachment process has been interrupted, and massage helps them start the process even while their infant is getting necessary medical care.

There is more information online, like with anything else, but I am leaving you with a good website to check out: Infantmassageusa.org and a terrific book:  Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents by Vimala McClure.

Nancy E.A. Weiss, MOT, OTR/L

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