by Lena DeGloma, MS, LMT, CD, CLC, CCCE
As a licensed massage therapist who specializes in prenatal and postnatal massage, I love teaching parents about how to massage their babies! One great thing about infant massage is that you do not need to be an expert with special training – you just need to be a loving parent with a willingness to tune in to your baby’s cues. Your baby’s rapidly growing brain is continuously forming new neural connections – and it is not just visual and auditory stimuli that help build your baby’s brain – tactile stimulation is incredibly important to virtually all aspects of your baby’s development. For your baby, touch is as critical as food – babies cannot survive if they are deprived of tactile stimulation. Beyond the basic touch associated with caring for a baby that keeps them alive, read on to learn more about how massaging your baby can help them thrive.
1. Massage enhances your baby’s digestion and physical growth. Massage has been shown to regulate babies’ gastrointestinal system and increase their absorption of nutrients. Low birth weight and preterm infants gain weight better when they receive massage. This is primarily mediated by a cranial nerve called the vagus nerve that travels to every organ in the body, allowing each organ to communicate directly with the brain. Massage stimulates pressure receptors under the skin and this in turn stimulates the vagus nerve, thereby improving gastrointestinal motility and increasing baby’s secretions of digestive and food absorption hormones such as gastrin and insulin. This helps your baby digest their food better and absorb more nutrients critical for growth and development. Studies have found that in addition to moderate pressure infant massage, passive movement of the limbs during massage increases preterm infants’ bone density. Preterm infants who receive massage also have shorter NICU hospital stays as their growth and development is enhanced.
2. Infant massage may lead to better social and cognitive skills in toddlers. Through its effect on vagal nerve tone, massage is associated with a variety of socio-mental benefits in babies including increased emotional expressivity and improved mental processing. Vagal nerve tone is known to be closely associated with attentiveness, eye contact, vocalizations, and facial expressivity infants as well as adults. Higher vagal nerve tone in preterm infants is independently predictive of greater social skills, mental processing, and even gross-motor skills at age three. Poor vagal tone is often found in infants of depressed mothers and this has been associated with less emotional expressivity in these babies. Infant massage improves vagal tone (measured via heart rate variability) and emotional expressivity (via facial expressions and eye contact) in babies of depressed mothers. Interestingly, this improvement in vagal tone is also one of the mechanisms behind the demonstrated benefits of massage therapy for depressed adults.
3. Massaging your baby can promote a healthy attachment. The early attachment formed between you and your baby sets the foundation for your baby’s sense of trust and their relationship to the outside world. A healthy attachment is associated with physical, emotional, and even spiritual health later in life. While there are many ways to bond with your baby, physical touch via massage is one of the simplest ways to communicate with your baby. Studies have found statistically significant differences in parent-infant attachment between parents who give infant massage and those who do not. Massaging your baby also helps you develop the skills of attunement and responsivity – two key characteristics that have been associated with better overall parenting outcomes.
While some babies may need expert massage therapy or physical therapy to treat specific conditions, the benefits described here are best achieved between parents and their babies in the absence of any health conditions. Massage is a simple yet powerful practice that supports your baby’s whole self, including their digestion, growth and development, cognitive function, and emotional connectedness and wellbeing. A basic class on infant massage can improve your confidence in integrating this practice into your family’s daily life.
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Lena DeGloma has a master of science in therapeutic herbalism and is also a licensed massage therapist, certified birth doula, certified lactation counselor, and certified childbirth educator. She is the founder + director of Red Moon Wellness in Park Slope, where she and her associates have been in clinical practice for over 12 years. She is currently serving as president of the Childbirth Education Association of Metropolitan New York and teaches in several professional training programs for massage therapists, herbalists, and childbirth professionals. She is the mother of an exuberant almost-3 year old daughter. www.redmoonwellness.com