Baby massage is the ancient practice of applying regular, gentle pressure to a baby's body for their physical, mental and emotional well-being. While baby massage has been practiced for centuries across regions including India, Pakistan and Africa, it was popularized in the West by Vimala Schneider McClure during the 1970s. McClure traveled to India and noted the benefits of infant massage while visiting an orphanage. When she returned to her home in the United States, she wrote about the practice and founded the International Association of Infant Massage.
The advantages of massaging babies are numerous. On a physical level, infant massage aids digestion by reducing gas and colic, stimulates blood flow, strengthens immunity, increases nerve function, improves sleep patterns and helps premature babies gain weight. Babies' intellect and motor skills have even benefited from the practice. Infant massages can also fortify the bond between parents and babies. While some parents choose to take their babies to a professional trained in baby massage techniques, a baby massage can be successfully performed at home by:
- Creating the right atmosphere. The baby should be relaxed, in a room of about 78 degrees Fahrenheit (25.5 degrees Celsius) and fed within the past 30 minutes. Dimming lights also helps reduce the baby's stress level and fear of the new activity.
- Undressing the baby. Performing a massage on an unclothed baby allows the baby to naturally react to the physical stimulation inherent in a baby massage. However, untouched bodily areas should be covered during cold weather to guard against illness.
- Placing the baby on a soft, spongy surface. Positioning babies on a bed or in a lap makes them more receptive to massaging. Pillows can be used to help the baby feel safe, secure and comfortable, but babies respond better to the skin-to-skin contact offered by bare legs.
- Putting grapeseed oil or sweet almond oil on hands and rubbing them together to warm it. Natural oils fare well in baby massage because they're smooth, easily absorb into the skin and can be digested if the baby puts some in his mouth. Other types of natural oils like coconut, apricot, safflower or avocado can work just as well, as long as they contain Vitamin E and have been cold-pressed. Patch-testing the oil on a baby's skin about 30 minutes before a massage can warn against potential allergies.
- Beginning by stroking the baby length-wise from his head to his toes. Applying the same amount of pressure to the baby's body as one would to the eyes without hurting them is the correct amount of force to use. Massaging the baby's face, shoulders, arms, chest, stomach, legs, ankles, feet and toes should be done in that order. Gentle squeezing on appendages can stimulate blood flow. Crying, tensing or other signs of discomfort should be taken as signals to end the massage session.
- Using fingertips and the sides of fingers to gently stroke sections of the baby's body. Babies tend to respond to circular motions on the abdomen and around the navel particularly well. The scalp, tops of eyelids, ears and the area between eyebrows also deserve attention. Because every baby is different, the massaging motion and the areas massaged should be informed by the baby's responses to them.
- Bonding with the baby. Making eye contact and talking to the baby offers an opportunity to connect. Some parents sing or explain each new movement to the baby as a way to establish communication and enhance developing verbal skills.
Baby massages that become a regular part of an infant's routine should be performed at a specific time during the day so that the baby can become accustomed to receiving them. Many parents choose to perform a soothing baby massage in the morning, after baths or before naps. In addition, announcing massages as they're performed allows babies to connect the word to the action. As a result, and in time, they'll be able to signal their receptivity to one when it's announced and offered.