Improve Mother-Baby Bonding with Infant Massage

Infant massage seems to be sweeping the world at the moment - it's popularity has exploded within the last few years, much of which is due to Vimala McClure and the IAIM. But, as with most natural healing techniques, it is by no means a new thing. People have been massaging babies for centuries. Once again, it is the Western World that is slow on the uptake. But we are learning, and more and more people are being trained to be able to teach this art to the people who need to know. Who needs to know? Well, the obvious ones are mothers, but also in this bracket are fathers, grandparents and guardians. Equally important are the people who care for children outside the home, nurses on Intensive Care Units that work with premature babies for instance, and those who work with the disabled. There are many benefits from massage for all babies, and these two groups in particular.

Infant massage obviously benefits the infant, this is one of the main reasons for giving massage. Caring touch is good for everyone, and infants especially who are new to the world need the reassurance of someone special being there for them. But have you considered that the massage can be beneficial to the giver too? There are some major benefits for the massage giver, including increased awareness of the baby and their needs and it can also aid the bonding process between care giver and baby.

In this Western Society, healing arts are not automatically accepted, despite being practiced for thousands of years. Although relevant research has been undertaken over many years, there is a huge upsurge in the amount of scientific research being done to prove or disprove the benefits of massage, touch and infant massage. It is a sad reflection on the society that, although many people can testify to something's worth, and the benefits that it brings to them and those around them, it will not be trusted until it can be proven scientifically. On the positive side though, it means that there is more and more information available for those people interested in massage and its benefits.

The Benefits of Infant Massage

Although it can seem like there is not much going on in a baby's world, it is a new and exciting time for them. It may seem like they do little but eat, sleep and demand attention - with a regular diaper change thrown in for good measure - but they are learning more now than they will ever learn again in such a short period of time. Little wonder that it can take time to adjust, from being thrust rudely from a state of tranquility, warmth and comfort into a world of changing faces, cold winds, warm baths and, well, everything else that we see every day and take for granted.

The benefits of Infant Massage can be grouped into the following main categories:

  • Relaxation
  • Relief
  • Stimulation
  • Interaction

You may think that RELAXATION should not be necessary for a baby - after all, what worries do they have? But there is much going on in a new baby's life, they have more to adjust to than they will ever have again. Stress is normal, in everyone's life, baby’s included. It is what ensures we get up in the morning. It has been found that all humans, from babyhood to old age, survive best on a period of high stress followed by a period of deep relaxation. However, we as a race have forgotten how to relax - there is always something that needs to be done, or a deadline to meet, or a call to make. Babies can pick up on this, and because we do not know how to relax, they do not learn to relax.

Massage can help ease the muscles into relaxation, and when practiced on a regular basis, teaches the infant what relaxation is and how to go about it. And as a side-benefit, the massager gets to take time out to gently massage their baby and they usually de-stress at the same time!

RELIEF from pain. Colic can be a nightmare. There are massage techniques that can ease the pain and discomfort of spasm or gas. They can help to disperse gas, ease muscle spasm, tone the digestive system and help it to work efficiently. It is not a miracle cure, and can take a few days to ease, but in my experience it can be more effective than a pharmaceutical remedy. Of course there can be other considerations – for example, the mother’s diet can be a factor if baby is breastfed, therefore it is wise to examine the possible causes in addition to giving a regular massage. Besides helping to relieve colic, there are also massage techniques that can help teething and emotional stress.

It may seem that STIMULATION is incompatible with relaxation, but massage can do both, all depending on the mood, setting and what your aims are. In general terms, most people would be looking for relaxation when going for a massage, and would want the same for their infant. But there are times and situations when relaxation would not be beneficial, such as massaging a baby with cerebral palsy. Therefore you have to be careful to judge each baby’s needs individually and that is especially so for babies with this condition. Some areas of muscle may be tense and need relaxing and some areas loose and need to be stimulated. However infant massage does not just stimulate muscles, it can stimulate other systems of the body as well. For example, it can help aid digestion and so ease the symptoms of constipation. It also stimulates blood flow - when you massage someone you will feel the area you are working on become warmer. Some babies have poor circulation and have cold hands and feet - if this is the case for your baby, massaging for just 5 minutes will make a difference that you can notice. Probably the most startling statistic of infant massage research so far is that massage can help increase weight gain in premature infants by as much as 47%.

INTERACTION (also classed as bonding) is a very complex process, and many factors can affect it. It is the development of understanding of each other, of knowledge about who the other is and what they need. Each parent and baby bond is very unique, and there is no one way that it happens, no one method that guarantees an easy path.

The ideal scenario is that mother (and father) and baby instantly bond as soon as they set eyes on each other just after birth. But that is by no means the norm. There are a few situations where bonding may be delayed. Some people who have a good delivery and hold the baby straight away may not like the way their baby looks - they may be wrinkly and red, or have a misshapen head. They do not want to believe that this is the baby that they made - it can't be, it is not beautiful enough. In other instances, the mother is too weak after a bad labor to want to know the baby. And there are some cases in which the baby is taken away from the parent straight after birth because of medical reasons, such as the baby may be very premature or it may not be breathing well. In other situations, the mother may feel guilty about passing on HIV to the child, or taking drugs or smoking while pregnant.

But bonding isn't an instantaneous reaction to having given birth. It is an ongoing process and, as such, it can be started at any time. In fact, it will already have started in pregnancy, with the mother feeling the baby's kicks and the baby hearing it's mother's voice. It is difficult for parents who feel they should have bonded with their baby and instead have feelings of guilt or of emptiness because it hasn't happened the way they feel it should. But they should take heart from the fact that interaction can take place later, and usually does. If the parent hasn't had the opportunity to be with the baby straight after birth then it may take longer. But it will happen. It is not a case of 'love at first sight', but instead of working at it from day one, and continuing to work at it as your baby grows and changes. There is always something new to learn about a child as they grow, they develop and change. Because of that, the bond between parent and child is always growing and changing.

Infant massage encourages a good relationship between mother and baby. It gives them a place and a time to be together, free from the worries and pressures of everyday life. It gives them space to just be together, not changing nappies or making dinner, shopping or sterilizing bottles. Infant massage instructors teach infant massage - once the mother is confident to massage without thinking about what move comes next or if they are doing the stroke correctly - then comes a time of real communication between mother and baby. Watching and learning from each other, and getting to know who the other person is.

Dr. Melanie offers infant massage classes from time to time in our clinic, when we have enough mothers expressing an interest. If you would like to learn infant massage, please call our clinic at 403-945-2422 to find out when our next class will be held!