By Kayla Richard, Richard graduated with a BS in Agriculture Education and a MS in Agriculture, both from West Virginia University. She worked for Purdue Extension for two years as the 4-H Youth Extension Educator. She has spent the last 8 years as a Family and Consumer Sciences Educator for public schools in Indiana focusing on the areas of health, wellness, child development and early childhood education.
Many of us have found that there are few things more relaxing than scheduling a quiet trip to the spa for a full body massage. What you may be surprised to know is that this is not just the case for adults. Children also get much benefit from a massage. This is especially the case for infants who have been diagnosed with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS). While new parents are often encouraged to engage in skin-to-skin (also known as kangaroo care) with their newborns, many are not shown these techniques. However, parents can use another technique to further the bonding and lessen the stress of their new bundle of joy through infant massage.
While the history of massage therapy can be dated back over 4000 years, it was not until the 1980’s that researchers started looking at the effects massage had on infants inside of Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) facilities. This is because for a long time it was thought that babies with NAS were easily overstimulated. While they were not completely wrong in this assumption, it has been found that the senses stimulated with the positive touch of infant massage can help newborns, rather than harm them.
Positive outcomes of engaging in this practice with your child may include:
- Increased caregiver-child bonding
- More restful sleep and naps
- Relief from intestinal distress such as gas or constipation
- Weight gain in premature infants
- Reduced hospital stays
- Increased motor skills
- Counterbalance and decrease pain response
- Increased emotional stability
- Reduced stress hormones
It is especially important to note that if your infant has underlying health concerns or is younger than 37 weeks’ gestation, please consult their pediatrician before attempting infant massage.
While staff in the NICU will be able to show you how to apply proper techniques when massaging your infant, here are some basic guidelines to get you started:
- Make the time– Be sure you have time to devote to your baby (10-15 minutes) to keep each experience calm and enjoyable for both of you. Do not rush or overdo it. Just like a grown-up getting a massage, going too long can make them sore, which we do not want to do.
- Pick a spot– Position the baby on a safe, stable surface in front of you. Your lap, the floor or a changing table are all great ideas!
- Set the mood– Just like when we get a massage, we like it to be calm, quiet, dimly lit, and non-stimulating. This could mean getting rid of air fresheners, putting pets out of the room, or turning off the ceiling fan. Something as simple as turning on a white noise machine may help certain infants as well. Each baby is different so it may take a bit to find what works best for you and your little one. Also, remember that you are part of their environment, so you need to use a calm voice and feel calm and relaxed as well. If your baby enjoys the massage, but they change and become irritable, stressed, or overstimulated, stop the massage.
- Read the signs– Just like you, your baby may not WANT to be touched when you are ready to give them a massage. If the baby is not calmed by the encounter, stop and try again later.
- Firmness– Even though they are little, do not tickle and flutter. Use firm, slow and smooth strokes. Do not squeeze or push into their body. You will be able to tell what they are enjoying or not as you go. Think about the firmness when you swaddle your baby. That is what you want to mimic: firm, consistent, slow, smooth touch.
- Technique– For most positive outcomes of infant massage, an overall body approach is best. Spend about 1 minute per body area: head, back of neck, shoulders, arms, legs, feet, hands. You can place the baby on their stomach first and massage each body area, and then flip to their back and repeat on each area.However, if you have a baby suffering from gas, constipation or colic you may want to concentrate on the abdomen and working the knees up to the belly.
While all the benefits in the list above are amazing things to strive for when pampering your baby, we also know that one of the biggest benefits is the lifelong bond that will begin between the two of you. Caregiver-child bonding is vital for the healthy development of a child.
Infant Massage in the NICU – Seattle Children’s. https://www.seattlechildrens.org/globalassets/documents/healthcare-professionals/neonatal-briefs/infant-massage-in-the-nicu.pdf.
“UK NICU Nurses Deliver Healing Touch.” UKNow, 23 Nov. 2015, https://uknow.uky.edu/uk-healthcare/uk-nicu-nurses-deliver-healing-touch
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