by Valerie Lynn-McDonough
“Being touched and caressed, being massaged is food for the infant, food as necessary as minerals, vitamins and proteins.” —Dr Frederick Leboyer M.D., a French physician who was responsible for creating awareness in maternity wards of the intact and functioning senses of the newborn.
Infant massage has long been practiced in Asia and has been shown to have general health and scientific benefits. Massage can make babies feel calm, improve their digestion, as well as reduce or eliminate colic fussiness and crying.
My experience is with the Malay style of baby massage, which is a common style found in countries in the Southeast Asian region. In Malaysia, massage specifically for infants dates back as far as specialized pregnancy and postpartum massages. Most Malay mothers give their babies a massage every day for three to four months minimum, and in some cases up to six months.
There are two unique aspects to the Malay style of baby massage, as it includes the use of a hand-held herbal ball press, called a “tunku,” and a baby tummy wrap, called a “barut.” The barut is wrapped snuggly, but gently, around a baby’s abdomen. The tummy wrap is used on a daily basis, and is said to be effective for digestion and colic as well as provides the baby with comfort because it mimics the feeling of being in the womb, safe and warm. The material of a baby barut is light and normally of cotton flannel.
Virgin coconut oil
From 2 days old, a baby is given a gentle, head-to-toe massage on a daily basis after a bath when the skin is slightly moist and pores are open. The most common oil used is coconut oil, since it has many purposes and is widely used for massage, cooking and can be taken as an internal supplement. The health benefits of coconut oil are tremendous, as it is the richest source of medium-chain triglycerides; has antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral and antiparasitic properties; and is good for the skin. However, one can also use a high quality, cold-pressed virgin olive oil, as long as the oil is from a natural origin and not processed or made from a petroleum base.
To begin, the baby is given a nice warm bath to relax and be cleaned thoroughly. After bathing, lightly dry the baby and then place her back on a soft towel or cloth, one that you don’t mind gets ruined if excess oil is absorbed. Most baby massages take place in the bathroom, since the room is at a warmer temperature directly after a bath (with the door closed) for the baby and the massage is given before the diaper and clothes are put on.
- First, put a small amount of natural massage oil on your hand and place your hand gently on the baby’s tummy. Do not do this massage upside down; have the baby in front, facing you. Softly massage the tummy area in a circular motion clockwise, the area around the belly button, as it follows the flow of digestion of the large intestine. Be careful to not get oil on the umbilical cord if it is still attached.
- Proceed to gently pull the front and back of the legs in a downward motion, working your way to the feet, and then gently caress the feet and toes.
- Next, move up to the arms and stroke the back and front of the arms and hands and then play with the fingers. Note: It is important to use”natural” oil, as the baby will put her hands into her mouth.
- When you are finished with the front, place the baby on her front onto your forearm and support the head with the palm of your hand, and the body with your forearm. Then gently stroke the baby’s back and buttocks, like you are smoothing down a piece of cloth.
- Turn the baby around to face you and place her on her back. You can then softly massage from the forehead down to the chin in a downward motion.
This may take five to 10 minutes or however long the mother/father would like to bond with their baby. Babies usually like this sort of gentle touching, as long as the room temperature is warm enough so they don’t feel cold. If the baby is crying, check the room temperature.
An additional feature of the face massage of the Malay culture is the mouth and sinus area. The pinky finger is placed in the baby’s mouth with the underside of the finger touching the roof of the mouth; the nose and sides of the nose, where the sinus canals are located, are gently pinched and smoothed outwards to open sinus canals. Of course, be careful only to put a small part of your pinky in the mouth and that the airway of the baby is not blocked. This helps with sinus conditions and to keep them clear.
Herbal ball massage, or tunku massage
After the oil massage, an herbal compress ball, called a tunku, is used. An herbal compress can contain a combination of up to 15 to 18 different kinds of traditional, relaxing herbs, with some of the most commonly used herbs being turmeric, lemongrass, kaffir lime, camphor tree, tamarind and ginger.
The tunku is steamed or warmed in a microwave to a temperature comfortable enough for a baby’s sensitive skin. Test the warmth on your own hand first to make sure it isn’t too hot. Then, begin gently pressing the warm bundle vertically starting with the baby’s tummy in the same circular, clockwise pattern around the belly button, moving down to the legs pressing the front, lifting the legs and pressing the buttocks and then the back of the legs. Then, press the feet (top and bottom) and the arms (back and front). You can turn the baby around as previously done during the oil massage and press the back.
Baby tummy wrap (barut)
After the tunku massage, a baby tummy wrap (called a barut) is placed around the abdomen. There are two types: one with a Velcro strip and one with ties. There are two lengths: a shorter size that is for just around the tummy area and a longer one that covers the chest and tummy area.
The gift of human touch
There are many observed and proven benefits of a baby massage: it calms difficult or colicky babies; alleviates gas, constipation and other digestive problems; relaxation; promotes better sleep; boosts the immune system and sensory stimulation; improves skin condition and blood circulation; and helps waste elimination. However, there are also wonderful benefits for the parents, such as helping them learn about their baby’s needs and desires. It also relaxes parents, stimulates oxytocin for mothers and helps build parents’ self-esteem about taking care of their baby.
The healing power of therapeutic touch has been documented. A newborn baby instinctively responds to touch, and massage by a mother or father to their baby is a wonderful way to enhance their natural bond.
Valerie Lynn-McDonough, author of The Mommy Plan, studies traditional massage techniques. Her passion is pregnancy, postpartum and childbirth traditions, beliefs, products and services from Southeast Asia. She dreams that wonderful, all-natural products will become part of American culture so women will have a balanced recovery from childbirth. For more information, visit www.mypostpartumwellness.com.