Mom doing exercises with daughterToday’s parents are becoming more aware of the many benefits of massage and exercise for babies.

While massage alone can produce a laundry list of positive effects, adding some simple exercises to the regimen can yield results that carry over into childhood, adolescence and beyond.


Massage for Babies

Judith Koch, founder and director of education at The Institute of Somatic Therapy, said that massage offers a number of benefits alone, but combined with simple exercises, it can help with a child’s natural development.

“Performing massage has proven to have myriad benefits for the baby, of both a physiological and psychological nature,” she said, asserting that massage releases stress, a factor in 60 to 90 percent of illnesses.

She also noted, “The baby benefits physically just as adults do, with improved circulation, improved digestion, movement of lymphatic fluid, easing of colic and gas, to name a few. The baby also feels more loved and accepted, learns body awareness and [massage] teaches them healthy touch.”

Infant massage is simple by design, according to Koch. She noted that strokes are gentle kneading or firm, but gentle, effleurage. The same philosophy applies to exercise for newborns.


Stage-Appropriate Exercises for Babies

Koch recommends engaging the baby in simple age- and developmental-stage-appropriate exercises at first. For instance, parents can do exercises to help newborns gain neck strength for head control, as well as learn the motions involved in rolling over, sitting up and crawling. “There are also a series of alternating arm and leg motions and cross-body motions that can help develop coordination,” she added.

Just as the length of a massage session with a baby depends on the infant’s tolerance, exercise periods should be governed by the baby’s level of attention and participation.

Koch pointed out, too, that exercises don’t necessarily have to be done during massage, especially if the goal of the massage is to induce calm. “Massage might work best before sleep time, and exercises might be best during fully awake times,” she said. “Again, the exercises can be done on their own, almost like a patty-cake type play session. Primarily you are working to help develop coordination and to enhance the right-left brain synergy.”


Effect of Exercise on the Young Brain

Several recent studies support these ideas about exercise in young children. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, researchers noticed enhanced interaction between the hippocampus and basal ganglia, which aids in complex thinking.

In 2014, Pediatrics published a study in which children in a 9-month exercise program, compared to those not in the program, had a significant improvement in attention, cognitive flexibility and brain function.

Psychologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported in 2012 that exercise enhanced attention span and executive control in youngsters.


Growing Up

Koch reminds parents that as the baby grows, massage methods change. “It tends to get easier as the baby grows, when you have long body parts. As the baby grows, the movements can have more fluidity as [parents] aren’t quite so cramped working on tiny areas,” Koch said. So, too, will an exercise regimen change as the child moves into different developmental stages.