The right touch

Christine Hennebury
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Parents and caregivers can use massage to calm infants

Photo by Jupiterimages.com

Lisa O'Brien began practising infant massage when she noticed that her son liked having baby lotion rubbed on after his bath.
"I just kind of stumbled on it. I had heard from the public health nurse that babies like it. We had a couple of evenings with a crying baby so I said what the heck, I would try it. It would really settle him. He would just lie really still and quiet."
While adults regularly use massage therapy as a way of reducing stress and easing pain, they may not think of it as something for infants.
But as Danielle Reddy, a registered massage therapist with Family Wellness Massage Therapy, says, "Touch is important for everyone, especially infants. It is important for healthy development, both mentally and physically."
Caregivers tend to pat babies gently on the back or smooth a baby's cheeks with their fingers to calm them. Massage is a natural extension of those kinds of motions, and most infants will find rhythmic touch soothing and will welcome massage as part of their routines.
Reddy says regular massage has a positive effect on a baby's disposition.
"Massage should be used as part of an infant's routine because it helps them sleep better, calms them and makes them more alert when they are awake."
Massage also helps caregivers build a strong relationship with the baby.
"It is an early stage of communication between baby and parent," Reddy said. "The parents learn more about their baby, what they like, how they react to the massage through smiling, frowning, and eye contact."
She says the benefits go beyond emotional effects, improving digestion, constipation and colic and helping babies grow strong and healthy.
"The benefits of massage have been proven in many studies. Premature babies that have been massaged on regular basis gained weight faster, acquired mental and motor skills faster, and were more relaxed than babies (who) were not massaged."
O'Brien's son particularly enjoyed massage right after his nighttime bath.
"Usually after a bath I would lie him on his belly and dry him with the hair dryer (on low) which would settle him and then I would rub baby lotion on him," she said.
"I would rub his back all over for a few minutes, but he really seemed to like having his legs massaged - I would put my whole hand around his legs and move them up and down his legs."
After bath is a great time for massage because the baby is likely relaxed, but Reddy says parents can pick their own best time.
"After a period of regular massage in a routine the baby, will know when to expect it."
Reddy says any loving caregiver can give a massage and form a close bond with the baby. She suggests that if the mother is breastfeeding, massage is great opportunity for the father or partner to create a special bond with the baby.
Infant massage is not complicated, but it is a good idea to consult with a massage therapist to learn proper techniques and pressure. Reddy and other massage therapists offer clinics on how to massage babies safely.
To get started, Reddy says that all parents need is a relaxed baby, warm room, massage oil or lotion, and something comfortable for the infant to lie on (avoid using a bed, in case the infant rolls).
She advises parents to begin with gentle pressure and slow, long strokes from the base of the neck to the infant's lower back.
Toddlers and older children also can enjoy the benefits of massage.
O'Brien has found that to be true with Cameron, who is now 17 months old.
"Even now that he is older he still reacts the same way (to a massage) and sometimes he even almost falls asleep," she said.
In the hectic days of caring for an infant, it can be difficult to find the time to incorporate massage into the routine, but the benefits are worth the effort involved.

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