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updated: 10/3/2012 12:10 PM

Infant massage: Parents' loving touch can strengthen bonds

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  • Pediatric physical therapist Laura Basi gives her week-old son Wiliam a massage in their Batavia home Monday.

      Pediatric physical therapist Laura Basi gives her week-old son Wiliam a massage in their Batavia home Monday.
    Rick West

  • Ten-month-old Brady, gets a massage from Linda Merry, director of occupational therapy at Easter Seals of DuPage in Villa Park.

      Ten-month-old Brady, gets a massage from Linda Merry, director of occupational therapy at Easter Seals of DuPage in Villa Park.
    Bev Horne

  • Brady, 10 months, gets a message from his mother Gina Coulter of Lombard.

      Brady, 10 months, gets a message from his mother Gina Coulter of Lombard.
    Bev Horne

  • Linda Merry, director of occupational therapy at Easter Seals of DuPage in Villa Park, looks on as Gina Coulter of Lombard gives her baby Brady, 10 months, a massage.

      Linda Merry, director of occupational therapy at Easter Seals of DuPage in Villa Park, looks on as Gina Coulter of Lombard gives her baby Brady, 10 months, a massage.
    Bev Horne

  • Pediatric physical therapist Laura Basi of Batavia learned infant massage techniques when her daughter Samantha was a baby. Basi just gave birth to her second child, William, and is practicing the same techniques with him.

      Pediatric physical therapist Laura Basi of Batavia learned infant massage techniques when her daughter Samantha was a baby. Basi just gave birth to her second child, William, and is practicing the same techniques with him.
    Rick West

  • Pediatric physical therapist Laura Basi gives her week-old son Wiliam a massage in their Batavia home.

      Pediatric physical therapist Laura Basi gives her week-old son Wiliam a massage in their Batavia home.
    Rick West

  • Pediatric physical therapist Laura Basi gives her week-old son Wiliam a massage in their Batavia home.

      Pediatric physical therapist Laura Basi gives her week-old son Wiliam a massage in their Batavia home.
    Rick West

  • Laura and Justin Basi of Batavia with 2-year-old daughter Samantha and week-old son William. Laura is a pediatric physical therapist who learned infant massage techniques when Samantha was a baby and now is using the technique with William.

      Laura and Justin Basi of Batavia with 2-year-old daughter Samantha and week-old son William. Laura is a pediatric physical therapist who learned infant massage techniques when Samantha was a baby and now is using the technique with William.
    Rick West

  • Martha Valdez of Schaumburg learned infant massage after her son Daniel was born. Leticia Alvarado, left, is a certified infant massage educator for St. Alexius Medical Center.

      Martha Valdez of Schaumburg learned infant massage after her son Daniel was born. Leticia Alvarado, left, is a certified infant massage educator for St. Alexius Medical Center.
    courtesy of St. Alexius Medical Center

 
By Janice Youngwith

There's nothing more important than being able to read your child's cues and nothing more distressing not being able to soothe, comfort and calm your baby.

"Infant massage is an art that's been practiced for centuries," says Linda Merry, a licensed occupational therapist and certified infant massage instructor at Easter Seals DuPage & The Fox Valley Region, Villa Park. "The International Association of Infant Massage was founded by Vimala McClure and introduced in 1976, with the goal to promote nurturing touch and communication through training, education and research so that parents, caregivers and children are loved, valued and respected."

Infant massage, she says, can be an important early intervention and relationship building tool for parents to help strengthen their bond with baby and enhance well-being.

In addition to enhancing parent-infant attachment, massage offers a number of benefits, explains Merry, who says the technique can help babies feel loved, can promote better sleep habits, improve blood circulation or breathing patterns, build a parent's self-esteem, facilitate body awareness and modulate sensory information.

In the most basic terms, she says, infant massage involves a process of communication and loving touch using a variety of specialized massage techniques.

"Reading your child's cues, asking permission, nurturing engagement, eye-to-eye contact, and other positive behavioral components are important parts of the massage," says Merry, who notes the practice also is being embraced by pediatric therapists helping families cope with infants with special needs as well as healthy full-term newborns.

"Assisting the caregiver of a special needs infant should first involve teaching loving touch before working on therapeutic handling," she states. "Ultimately, they should be the same."

New mom Gina Coulter of Lombard says baby massage techniques she learned following the birth of her son, Brady, have been especially beneficial.

"Since Brady was in the NICU for six weeks, I wasn't able to hold him for the first 10 days," she recalls. "Infant massage was a nice calming bonding experience. Because Brady had special needs and wasn't able to nurse or bottle feed, I worried we were missing out on a nice snuggle-bonding time. Not only is infant massage healthy for Brady, I use it as a way to connect with him."

Another new mom, Martha Valdez of Schaumburg says infant massage makes her more aware of son Daniel's needs.

"I'm calmer, he's calmer and I'm better able to pick up on subtle cues to changes," says Valdez, a registered nurse and mother of three who wishes the technique was being taught when her older children were infants.

Baby massage benefits

Laura Basi, a Batavia mom and pediatric physical therapist, couldn't agree more about the benefits of infant massage.

She learned the technique when her daughter, Samantha, now 27 months, was an infant and says she quickly discovered what type of touch drew the best response.

"It was easy to see which strokes calmed Sam the most and I began to use that specific touch when she was fussy or to cue her to calm at night as part of her bedtime routine," reports Basi, who welcomed her second child recently. "For us, infant massage lends itself perfectly to a post-bath routine and, while Sam is now 2 years old, it's a technique we still use when applying lotion after bath time."

Basi, who learned skills needed to practice infant massage with her baby during a parent-baby training program, says each baby in class had a unique response.

"Some parents, like myself, used massage for bedtime and to promote sleep; others said they found it helped to relax tight muscles, to aid their baby's digestive system and to provide a total body sensory experience," she said. "It was a wonderful way to purely bond with my child and was calming for me as well as Sam!"

Benefits of healing touch

Leticia Alvarado, a certified infant massage educator and a certified child life specialist working in the emergency room at St. Alexius Medical Center, Hoffman Estates, says infant massage can benefit interaction, stimulation, relief and relaxation which promote nurturing touch between a parent and infant.

There is a growing body of research that supports the therapeutic benefits.

"Infant massage has the ability to create great benefits for parents and their newborn," notes Alvarado, who points to studies showing that moms and dads using massage techniques experience increased self-esteem as babies begin to greet them with increased eye contact, smiling, vocalizing and reaching responses.

Parent-trained massage programs are making their way from hospital nurseries to homes across the suburbs and to outpatient pediatric therapy centers, where even medically fragile infants show positive response to touch.

During her infant massage classes, Alvarado encourages new parents to remove jewelry, communicate with their baby, make eye contact, ask permission, explain what they are doing, and learn to read their baby's cues. Babies are placed on a blanket wearing diapers only in an appropriate room temperature. Soft music and dimmed lighting helps facilitate relaxation, although play-based massage also is possible for more alert and active babies.

"Through massage it's easy to see if babies are indicating and progressing through different stages of alertness, making eye contact, interacting to stimuli and more," explains Alvarado, who encourages parents to use oil that is natural, unscented and edible, such as sunflower oil, cupped in the palm of their hands.

Infant massage, she says, is similar in many ways to kangaroo care techniques being taught in the hospital and using skin-to-skin contact to help even the tiniest premature babies stabilize body temperature, heart rate, breathing and promote rest. Specific massage movements can help with common problems like constipation, colic, gas and even tactile defensiveness.

"It's amazing to see an infant's eyes light up as parents show them the oil rubbing in their hands," she adds. "They know what to expect, are excited and parents love the response!"

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