As he awaited surgery, 6-month-old Sylvester was not allowed to eat for eight hours prior to the procedure.
Hungry and uncomfortable, he fussed and cried in his crib.
Fortunately, his mother had just learned the art of massage. She gently began to stroke his face and neck. Within minutes, his tiny body began to relax and he drifted into a restful sleep.
Scenarios like this are playing out in hospitals, homes and other settings where infant massage is performed. Research is bearing out the benefits of infant massage.
Tiffany Field, PhD, and her colleagues at the Touch Research Institute in Miami, for instance, have conducted including more than 100 studies that confirm the positive effects of massage on babies, including relief for gas, colic, constipation, earaches, asthma, colds, sleeping problems, teething and several other conditions.
Many programs, workshops and seminars have taken their cues from this research in developing infant-massage educational tools.
Massage Therapist as Instructor
The primary role of the massage therapist in infant massage is as instructor, teaching parents how to massage their babies.
“Infant massage is a wonderful added set of skills for a massage therapist,” said Linda Storm, founding executive director of Infant Massage USA, which offers infant-massage training. “Rather than massaging the babies, the therapist can teach a class of parents who massage their babies,” she added.
A parent class is usually 60 to 90 minutes in length, held once a week for five weeks, and taught to a half-dozen parents at a time, Storm said.
“Since the parents are massaging their baby, this relieves wear and tear on the therapist’s body,” she added. “Parents may be encouraged to schedule a massage for themselves, thus adding to the therapists clientele.”
Massage therapists can choose from many infant-massage training programs offered in person or online. Judith Koch’s is one massage educator who offers home-study training in infant massage through the Institute of Somatic Therapy.
“There are a myriad of benefits to infant massage, both physiological and psychological,” Koch said.
“A relationship has been shown between skin-to-skin touch and intelligence,” she added. “The more tactile stimulation a baby receives in its first months of life up through the first year can impact their brain development permanently.”
According to Koch, feeling love and attachment to parents is one of the most important gifts a baby can receive, and even the most frail of newborns should receive some touch.
Koch points out the benefits of massage extend beyond the infant. “A new parent massaging her infant will reap benefits by taking that quiet time for the two of them together,” she explained.
“It helps enhance communication between infant and parent. It will make for a calmer and happier baby, which will result in a calmer and happier household, and help the parent to be more aware of their baby’s physical condition.”
The World Institute for Nurturing Communication offers live training in infant massage to parents and massage therapists. The organization’s CEO, Andrea Kelly, recently developed a new program based on the science and research of Bruce Lipton, PhD, author of The Biology of Belief.
The Triad Model incorporates the total dynamics of infant, child and lifetime growth, which is also called epigenetics.
Focused on compassionate communication, the program aims to build confidence and develop a safe, creative and positive environment in the home through infant massage.
“Touch is critical for stress management and social development,” said Kelly. “Parents can use massage strokes to soothe, relax, stimulate and play with their babies. Infant massage is paramount to maximizing a child’s potential.”
Many cultures, including those in India, Africa, Mexico and Japan, embrace a philosophy of touch from an early age, according to Kate Jordan, who as of this writing was educator and owner of Bodywork for the Childbearing Year, based in in La Jolla, California, and who was an infant-massage educator for 20 years as well.
Jordan said there is a connection between infant massage and pregnancy massage. “Ultimately, a mother is far more likely to massage her baby if she has received massage,” she explained.
Research shows full-term babies of mothers with a normal pregnancy who received massage had higher scores on the Brazelton scale, a rating system that identifies an infant’s strengths and weaknesses and offers insight into the newborn’s capabilities.
“[Those infants] also had better orientation [and] excitability, lower rates of depression and tended to smile and vocalize more,” Jordan added.
While both mom and baby learn from each other during massage, Jordan urges dads to participate as well.
“We encourage fathers to do massage. This is especially important if the mother is breastfeeding. In that setting, the mother is ‘it.’ Massaging the baby is a 10- or 15-minute process and gives the dad a bonding experience,” she said.
Parents Benefit Too
In most cases, massage therapists learn infant massage on dolls rather than on babies. They then demonstrate for parents using the dolls or, sometimes, a baby. Jordan points out massaging an actual infant offers a truer experience because dolls don’t cry, sleep or wiggle.
Karen Stoner, owner of A Caring Touch Massage Therapy in State College, Pennsylvania, said while massage induces relaxation and relief for common issues in infancy, such as gas, those who have a cold or chest congestion will also benefit from massage.
She suggests gentle, downward strokes on the face to relieve sinus pressure and cupping or tapping on the body to break up chest congestion.
“Massage helps the immune system in general,” she said. Babies who are crying, teething or who have hiccups may also find comfort through massage.
Stoner likes to incorporate movement into massage for older babies, which can help them become kinesthetically aware. “At first, babies act homolaterally. They rarely cross the plane of the body,” she said.
“When you crisscross the body, bringing the right arm to the left shoulder, you stimulate the brain and increase body awareness. She cautions parents to stop the massage if the baby gives negative feedback.
The benefits of infant massage extend from the baby to her parents, Storm said.
“When parents massage their baby, hormones are released to help [the parents] relax,” she said. “Through massage, they learn to understand their baby, building their confidence as well as enjoying the interaction with other parents.”
Those who massage infants typically need not bother with oils or lotions, but when skin is so dry it requires a lubricant, Stoner recommends cornstarch, which offers the benefits of powder without causing respiratory issues.
For those who prefer to use oil, she finds extra virgin olive oil to be a safe option.
Products with high linoleic acid content, such as cold-pressed, unheated safflower oil, also nourish the skin, and grapeseed oil, if organic, is also acceptable.
Products containing mineral or nut oils should never be used due to possible allergic reactions. “Whatever you use should be as pure and simple as possible,” Stoner said.
The Pediatric Inpatient Setting
Infant massage has been gaining traction inside hospitals and other medical facilities for several years. The following example of massage therapists teaching infant massage to medical professionals and parents shows how this specialty can be a viable career path.
Twenty-five years ago, massage therapist, nurse and perinatal-education coordinator Teresa Kirkpatrick Ramsey introduced massage to a metropolitan hospital, St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio, where she and trained volunteers to give infant massage to more than 160 babies every month.
She went on to create Baby’s First Massage, a program for health care professionals and new parents.
Now offered at medical centers and other venues across the country, Ramsey’s program earned approval for continuing education credits for the Ohio Nurses Association.
Ramsey also developed a home-study course that allows for independent, flexible study, and a training video using dolls, which new parents view in the hospital after delivery. “We are trying to open up new parents to ways to adapt,” Ramsey said.
Massage therapist Linda L. Garofallou, LMT, earned the respect of physicians and nurses once they observed her give an infant-massage session and witnessed the results.
She currently works as the Infant & Pediatric Massage Therapist at the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health at Montclair State University, and as of this writing worked in the Child Life Department at Children’s Hospital of New Jersey at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, where she gave annual workshops in pediatric massage to incoming residents and offered biannual trainings for pediatric intensive-care nurses.
“There is a new level of respect and understanding” regarding infant massage among medical staff there, she said.
Garofallou has also taken her trainings into clinics and drug rehabilitation centers where she works with disadvantaged moms and their babies, some of whom arrive in this world with numerous medical challenges.
“The babies often reject touch and it starts a cycle of rejection at an early age,” she said. “It makes it very difficult to build a relationship.
Massage is a tool that can help parents take a step toward developing a healthy relationship,” Garofallou added. “It can help change the trajectory of their lives.”
Garofallou first gives disadvantaged mothers an arm-and-hand massage so they can experience nurturing touch themselves, before teaching them how to massage their babies.
“These women are dealing with physiological and emotional issues, and massage teaches [them] to think in a different way,” she said.
Healthy touch is powerful—physical, physiologically and emotionally, Garofallou said.
Flow is Key
When it comes to infant massage, flow is key, said massage therapist Ronda Cheatham, owner of A Touch of Grace Massage Therapy in Remington, Virginia.
She teaches parents to perform a milking stroke, running the pads of the fingers in long, gentle strokes down one leg or arm and then up and out, as well as a feather stroke, giving the baby a sense of his own body awareness.
“It helps them establish a personal space,” she explained.
Rapid, light strokes in a clockwise motion on the baby’s tummy mimic the way the digestive system works and help relieve gas, symptoms of infantile colic and constipation.
Moving the fingertips lightly back and forth above the umbilical cord in a spider-walking motion also helps relieve tummy troubles; alternatively, a kneading motion just below the ribs stimulates the gastrointestinal system, according to Cheatham.
These strokes help to prepare the digestive system to accept food and aid in preventing jaundice and weight loss, she said.
Also a doula, Cheatham massages mothers before, during and after giving birth, and massages infants soon after they are born. She said when she works with babies who are born to drug-addicted moms or have other medical issues, massage helps release endorphins, which are natural painkillers.
“When a baby is frightened, you can see a release,” she said. “That is important for babies who are struggling.
“Massage helps [the body] release endorphins without drugs or injections,” Cheatham added. “With the endorphin activation, stress levels drop while immunization levels and the senses of safety and security are increased, and all of this brings the individual into an more balanced state of well-being overall.”
The trauma of the birthing experience understandably induces some type of discomfort in most infants during or after their arrival, according to the massage therapists interviewed for this article.
“The intensity of the birth process, Jordan said, involves the infant leaving the safety and warmth of the womb for a cold, bright world. Massage is an effective way to transition into new surroundings and also help the family become accustomed to the new member.
Stoner learned this lesson when her 2-month-old daughter screamed incessantly with early teething pain. Unable to quell the baby’s cries, Stoner called upon her skill and knowledge as a massage therapist to solve the issue.
As she began to lightly stroke her daughter’s arms and legs, she witnessed visible relaxation. The tender, soothing movements reduced the tension that gripped her little body, calming both her and her mother.
“Massage gives parents a sense of control. It’s another tool all parents should have,” Stoner said.
About the Author
Phyllis Hanlon has written nonfiction articles and book reviews as well as human-interest stories, profiles and award-winning essays. Her specialty areas include health and medicine, religion, education and business. She is a regular contributor to MASSAGE Magazine and her articles include “Easy Spa Treatments Can Make Clients’ Days Merry” and “Massage Helps Addicts Rebuild Shattered Lives.”
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