Baby massage is an ancient art that has been practised by parents through the ages. Infant massage is something parents have done naturally to nurture their babies, and now research is discovering why this ancient art is so important for baby's wellbeing.
Massage is all about the power of touch. Touch is a universal language that we all instinctively understand. A tender touch signals safety and trust, and is the very best way to comfort.
As the first of the five senses to develop in babies, a tender touch sets the foundation for baby to thrive.
How does touch help baby thrive?
Tender touch is how we communicate to baby that they are safe and loved, and that they can relax and trust us to care for them. Research has shown that babies who are gently massaged daily respond with:
⭐ Better sleep
⭐ More calm
⭐ Increased cognitive development
⭐ Improved physical growth; and
⭐ A stronger bond with mama.
It seems hard to believe that such a simple daily ritual can have such a profound impact on baby.
Tell me more about better sleep!
It’s normal with a newborn to feel like sleep is a thing of the past, but a simple bedtime massage can make a world of difference.
And it’s not just good for baby …
A 2016 study found that mothers who massaged their baby with lotion for 15 minutes before bedtime improved both their sleep and baby's sleep. Mothers took less time to get off to sleep and slept longer, and baby had fewer nightwakings and longer sleeps.
Just like with adults, routine is crucial for a good night’s sleep. When we know what comes next, our body prepares for rest. So, create a bedtime ritual that works for your family. A warm bath, massage, feed, and bed can make a beautiful bedtime ritual.
Keeping things calm is key.
Can baby massage really help calm my baby?
Absolutely. Massage is an effective way to calm baby. A 2016 study explored the effectiveness of massage to calm colicky babies. They had one hundred infants younger than 12 weeks, and randomly assigned them into massage or rocking groups. For a week, babies in the massage group received two 15-20 minute massages each day - one during the day and at night just before bedtime.
In the control group mothers rocked their babies gently from 5-25 minutes when symptoms of colic appeared. Parents in both groups kept a daily diary detailing baby's colic symptoms. And the results were significant.
The researchers concluded that "massaging significantly improved colic symptom [...] and massage therapy is more effective than rocking for treating infant colic symptoms."
Well, does using baby balm for massage make a difference?
Yes, using massage balms and oils makes a significant difference for baby.
A study conducted by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine explored the benefits of massage on infants with and without oil. They concluded:
"Results showed that infants massaged with oil had fewer stress behaviours, were more relaxed, showed a more significant decrease in the stress-related hormone cortisol and a greater increase in vagal activity (indicating a slowing down of physiological processes) than infants massaged without oil."
Not all massage oils are created equal, but more on that soon. Read on.
Does baby massage really help cognitive development?
Touch is the first language babies learn, and research is showing that touch boosts brain activity and supports cognitive development.
The human brain is the most incredible and complicated object in the universe. It's made up of over 100 billion brain cells, and each cell connects to more than 7000 other brain cells. It works like a computer processing information it receives from the senses and body. But it also does more than just process, it provides the ability to think and experience emotions.
There is so much that we don't know about the brain, but we do know that significant brain development happens from the womb until early childhood. By the time a child is three, their brain has reached almost 90% of adult size. During this period, the brain is growing and forming critical connections and pathways. These pathways are the foundation for mental and emotional development.
Development delay is often seen in children that miss out on the tender touch. There is much research that suggests babies growing up in orphanages suffer from sensory deprivation and this impacts their development. However, with daily massage mental and motor development can be improved.
A 1960's study found that in just 10 weeks with daily tactile stimulation babies had higher scores of developmental assessments. Babies need sensory stimulation for normal development.
When preterm babies spend their early days isolated in incubators, this can also impact their development, but thankfully baby massage can make a difference her too.
In one study of 20 preterm infants in the neonatal intensive care unit were given 15 minutes of touch 3 times per day - ten minutes of gentle body stroking and 5 minutes of gentle limb flexing. The control group did not have this extra touch.
The data showed that gentle touch stimulation led to superior growth and developmental performance. They averaged 47% greater weight gain per day and were discharged an average of 6 days earlier.
When retested 8 and 12 months after treatment the gentle touch stimulated babies were in a higher weight percentile group, scored better on the mental and motor assessment tests, and had a reduced incident of neurological soft signs.
Can baby massage help babies grow?
Baby's weight is often used as the best indicator to determine growth and development of children.
There have been many studies that have found "infant massage can be effectively used as a way to increase a baby's weight and is a safe non-medical measure if done."
In a 2011 study of full-term babies, the researchers found that where mothers massaged once a day for four weeks, the median weight gain in the massage group was 1230 grams, and in the control group was 830 grams.
Researchers believe that massage increases the absorption of macronutrients and micronutrients, but there is still more to understand.
A 2020 study explored the difference between massaging low-birth-weight babies with coconut oil and massaging without oil. They found massaging with coconut oil produced a higher weight gain in low-birth-weight babies.
Does the amount of massage pressure matter?
Absolutely. Moderate pressure is an essential component of baby massage.
Studies have found that babies who receive only light pressure stroking will not gain as much weight as those who receive moderate pressure. In fact, moderate pressure resulted in 26% more weight gain than light pressure.
The oils used in baby massage also matter. Natural oils have been found to significantly increase weight gain more that synthetic oils or massage with no oils at all.
With all baby skincare it's important to patch test first to ensure there is no irritation.
How does baby massage help mothers and babies bond?
Bonding between mother and baby begins in the first days of life and is crucial for baby's healthy development. The attachment between mother and baby developed in the first year of life, forms the foundation of baby's sense of trust.
Massage is one of the simplest and natural ways develop bonding between mother and baby. Cuddles, stroking and skin-to-skin contact all support a strong attachment.
One study carried out between June 2008 and February 2010, examined the impact of massage on the mama-baby bond. They studied 120 babies, with 60 babies massaged and 60 babies in the control group. In the massage group, mothers massaged their babies with oil for 15 minutes everyday over 38 days.
At the end of the study, researchers found that there was a significant difference in bonding between the two groups and concluded, "baby massage is effective in increasing mother-infant attachment."
Creating cosy and calm bedtime rituals are a lovely way to introduce baby massage to your day.
The Australian Parenting website has a great pictorial step-by-step guide to baby massage. Remember to use moderate pressure and focus on soothing baby with your tender touch for at least 15 minutes.
When it comes to massage oils, we recommend Everkind’s New Baby unscented massage balm for babies under 3-months. This is the softest of touches, created from organic argan oil, organic jojoba oil, organic extra-virgin coconut oil, and organic beeswax. These oils have been loved by generations all-over the world.
Once baby is 3-months old, they can graduate to Everkind’s Sweet Dreams, a gently scented bedtime balm. Scented with organic lavender and organic roman chamomile, this dreamy-scented balm calms and nourishes.
Both bedtime balms are perfect for creating beautiful bonding moments.
My final thoughts ...
While the days of babyhood are challenging emotionally and physically, they are in the end, very short.
Creating daily rituals help us to slow down and savour the special moments of parenting. When we take time to cherish our babies, we're building love and trust, and making memories that will be with us forever.
Parenthood can feel pretty complex, but what we all want is super simple - just a happy, healthy bub! And at the end of the day, we all do better with a daily dose of touch. 🤗
I’d love to hear your experiences with baby massage.
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