Some 20 years ago, dads were relegated to the waiting room as the birth of their child took place behind closed doors. Fast-forward and those doors have been thrown wide open. In some instances, however, fathers are still part of the background, playing a supportive but limited role in the upbringing of their child. Creating a bond should begin at birth, and research has shown that massage can serve as one of the building blocks for paternal-child bonds.
Renowned massage therapist and researcher Tiffany Field from the Touch Research Institute in Miami conducted a study in 2000 that found fathers who massaged their infants were “more expressive and showed more enjoyment and more warmth during floor-play interactions with their infants.” Moreover, fathers who participated in massage experienced increased self-esteem as a parent. Field noted that while the dads reaped benefits, their babies also realized some advantages—they tended to greet the fathers with more direct eye contact, smiled and vocalized more (Early Child Development and Care).
A more recent study yielded similar results after observing two groups of 12 infant-father dyads for four weeks. Fathers in the experimental group massaged their babies, while dads in the control group did not. After massaging their infants, the fathers demonstrated a decrease in their stress scores. The authors concluded that infant massage is a “viable option for teaching fathers caregiving sensitivity.” Additionally, the results suggest that fathers who massage their infants experienced “increased feelings of competence, role acceptance, spousal support, attachment and health by decreasing feelings of isolation and depression” (The Journal of Perinatal Education).
In 2013, Mary Kay Keller, author, educator, researcher and relationship coach, published her dissertation in which she investigated the benefits fathers perceived they received from massaging their infants. In addition to increased sensitivity and competency, the dads reported greater awareness that they were contributing to the child’s well being. They were also motivated to spend time massaging their infant for two reasons: to give mom a break and to help decrease stress in the baby. They also valued the opportunity to enjoy their baby and the ultimate bond they were creating.
As social norms evolve and men become more actively involved in their children’s lives, it might be worthwhile to explore the benefits massage can provide for both baby and dad. When a bond is forged early on, the chances for a strong, healthy relationship later in life are increased.