All About Baby Massage

Elizabeth Pantley's picture

by Elizabeth Pantley

relaxed baby massage sessionBaby massage has been practiced since ancient times. It can be as simple as a gentle rub with lotion after a bath or a more practiced infant massage. The benefits are many for both baby and parent.

Benefits for Baby

  • Helps your baby relax
  • Stimulates circulation, digestion, and neurological development
  • Promotes more restful sleep
  • Improves the efficiency of your baby's immune system
  • Stimulates your baby's developing nervous system
  • Helps relieve pain of colic, gas, illness, and teething
  • Promotes healthy weight gain
  • Enhances sensory awareness
  • Stimulates growth-promoting hormones
  • Provides baby with much-loved touch and connection
  • Increases bonding and attachment between baby and parent
  • Provides premature and special-needs babies with immense physiological benefits

Benefits for Parents

  • Builds your confidence in baby handling
  • Provides you an opportunity to become more competent in reading your baby's cues
  • Gives you a special, focused time with your baby
  • Deepens the bond between you and your baby
  • Provides you with a tool for calming and settling your baby
  • Gives parents of premature babies or babies with special needs a way to bond with and help their baby
  • Provides parents with an effective way to settle a fussy or colicky baby
  • Gives parents a loving way to introduce a sibling to a new baby
  • Allows you to enjoy the feel of your baby's miraculous little body

Get Ready for Baby's Massage

You can massage your baby at any time and in any place. Most babies love to be touched -- and most parents love to touch their babies -- so anytime you feel like rubbing your baby, you should. In addition to casual touches, you can also plan for a more organized massage as well. A massage is a wonderful way to end a bathing session, begin or end the bedtime ritual, or start the day. Here are some guidelines to prepare for a peaceful baby massage:

  • Choose a time when you won't be interrupted or rushed.
  • Make sure that your baby isn't too hungry (or too full).
  • If your baby is colicky, choose the time just before crying usually begins.
  • Choose a warm room (at least 75ºF/ 23.9ºC) without any drafts. Depending on how warm the room is, you may want to keep Baby covered with a small blanket during the massage, leaving out the body parts that you are massaging.
  • Leave your baby in as little clothing as conditions permit -- a diaper or nothing at all. (Just keep something handy to cover up that diaper area fast, just in case!)
  • If you and your baby would enjoy it, play some soft music, or use the time to talk to and sing to your baby.
  • Lay your baby on a soft towel or blanket on the floor or on a bed. A small baby can lie skin-to-skin on your stomach or across your legs.
  • Have warm baby lotion or oil ready, if you wish to use one of these. Choose oils made especially for babies, when possible. Avoid nut-based oils, like peanut and almond, to avoid the risk of allergic reactions. And avoid having oils on or next to your baby's face and hands (since they may likely find their way to Baby’s mouth!)

Make the Massage a Pleasant Experience

Tell your baby what you are doing and ask for permission, "Would you like Mommy to give you a massage?" This sends a message right from a young age that your baby's body belongs to her.

Respect your baby's signals. Always watch your little one for signs of enjoyment (smiles, coos, relaxed posture) or dissatisfaction (turning away, fussing, closing arms, crawling away), and stop if she seems uncomfortable or restless. If your baby is having a colic episode, then attempt to calm him with massage before judging his response to the massage. Sometimes babies take a few minutes to adjust, or they may like the massage at first, but then have had enough and would like to stop.

Put a bit of oil or lotion on your hands and rub them together -- never pour anything directly onto your baby.

Use warm hands when touching your baby.

Use a gentle touch, but not so light that it tickles your baby -- about the same pressure you would use on your eyelids without causing any discomfort. On small areas of your baby's body, use your fingertips; on larger areas, like his back, use the palms of your hands.

As a general rule, strokes should move from the center of your baby's body outward; for example, when massaging arms, go from shoulders out to hands.

Keep your movements balanced; if you massage the left arm, then also do the right arm.

If your baby is a newborn, don't massage near the umbilical cord or the circumcision site (if your baby has been circumcised).

Don't forget to massage those teeny feet -- a delightful experience for any parent!

Start with a short session at first -- no more than about five minutes. Over time, lengthen your massage sessions to 20 or 30 minutes, basing the length of time on your baby's signals of enjoyment.

Don't massage your baby if she has a fever, has just had an immunization, or is ill.

Read Your Baby's Signals

Very young babies or those who are new to massage are often uncertain about it. Vary the pressure and location of your touch depending on your baby's reactions. Watch your baby's face and body language for feedback. This is a learning experience for both of you.

PARENT TIP: "I loved doing massage with all my babies and took a massage class in Sweden -- I remember the teacher there recommended giving the massage in a steamy bathroom so our newborns wouldn't get chilled. I played the same music every day when I did the massage, and after a while, they knew that, when I turned on that music, they were in for a treat!" -- Alice, mother of Patrick (6), Carolyn (4), and twins Rebecca and Thomas (2)

What About Siblings?

Here's a wonderful experience for your older child and baby alike: Teach big brother or sister how to massage the baby. This can create a special bond between them and can promote soft and gentle touches. Massage time for your baby is often a perfect time to massage your older child, too. As your baby gets a little older, he'll probably want his turn at massaging his older sibling. Few things are more special for a parent than watching siblings treat each other with gentle loving care, and this kind of ritual is perfect for encouraging sibling attachment.

At What Age Should Massage Begin?

You can, and should, massage a child of any age from newborn to adulthood. Children learn much about the power of gentle touch. My son David knows how wonderful a massage can be, and when he was eight years old, he gave me a nightly back massage throughout my pregnancy with his baby brother. (Yes, every night, isn't that sweet!) All of my older children love to be rubbed; there's something very special about spending a little time giving your teenager a backrub or foot massage. It maintains a beautiful parent-child connection throughout a lifetime.

Baby Massage Classes

Many hospitals and private organizations offer baby massage classes. These are beneficial because a certified Infant Massage Instructor can show you all the how-tos, step by step. An instructor can give you a hands-on demonstration and answer your questions to help you feel confident in this very gentle and soothing art. Remember that massage and touch is an experience that is exclusive between the parent and baby, the instructor will help you learn how to read your baby and how to use the art of massage.

PARENT TIP: "My husband gives our daughter her nightly bath and massage as a way of connecting with her after he's been away at work all day. It's a special time for both of them, and I get an hour for myself." -- Olga, mother of Eugenia (14 months old)

Elizabeth Pantley is a mom of four, a parenting expert, attachment parenting supporter and the writer of several parenting books, including The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night and The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers. Elizabeth is a regular radio show guest and frequently quoted as a parenting expert in magazines such as Parents, Parenting, Working Mother, McCalls, Redbook and on over 50 parent-directed Web sites. She publishes a newsletter, Parent Tips, that's distributed in schools nationwide.

This article is an excerpt from Gentle Baby Care by Elizabeth Pantley.

Copyright © Elizabeth Pantley. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.