Touch is the first sense to develop in utero and it is the last sense to leave us before we die. Research shows us that our sense of touch develops in the time frame of as early as six to nine weeks’ gestation. During infant massage, parents rhythmically stroke their baby, forging the bonds of trust and security that are so important to their future development.
A well-known anthropologist Dr Ashley Montagu wrote: ‘Human beings cannot survive without touch; it is a basic behavioural need. With healthy touch, the human infant not only survives, but thrives.’
HISTORY OF INFANT MASSAGE AND THE IAIM
The International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) was founded in 1976 by Vimala McClure. McClure was doing some voluntary work in orphanages in India in 1973 and noticed the beneficial effects of massage on babies even though they were being raised in the poorest conditions. On her return to America, she began to develop an infant massage curriculum from Indian massage, Swedish massage, the principles of yoga and reflexology. The organisation began to grow, host regular conferences, develop instructor and trainer courses, and today has representation in 74 different countries all across the world.
BENEFITS OF INFANT MASSAGE
The benefits of massaging your infant are endless and can be categorised:
For the baby
Massage facilitates the promotion of bonding and secure attachment between infant and parent. This first attachment relationship for an infant holds great power as it typically becomes the most significant model for all future relationships in the infant’s life. Massage also contributes to the enhancement of verbal/non-verbal communication like eye-contact, gestures, copying of facial expressions and pre-language communication skills. It allows undivided, one-to-one quality time between infant and parent, fostering feelings of respect, love, tolerance, nurture and empathy.
Massage has a positive effect on the infant’s circulatory, digestive, hormonal, immune, lymphatic, nervous, respiratory and vestibular (coordination and balance) systems in order for them to be regular and functioning at optimal levels. Language development, improved learning ability, muscular development and tone, growth, sensory integration and body awareness are benefits that evolve over time and with a regular massage routine. Massage is not limited to babies only; it is encouraged to carry it through childhood years and even into early adolescence.
Massage can help with gas and colic, constipation and elimination, cramps, excess mucus, growing pains, muscular tension, teething discomfort, disorganisation of the nervous system, sensitivity to touch and softening of the skin. Parents with babies who experience one or more of the above ailments often feel powerless and frustrated as they cannot provide relief. Infant massage has been shown to provide relief for symptoms immediately or within two to three days.
Benefits of massage may be demonstrated by improved sleep patterns, normalised muscle tone and increased flexibility. Babies show increased coping mechanisms to their environments and they are more optimally able to regulate themselves which results in less fussiness, crying and disorganisation. Due to this relaxation, there will be a reduction of stress levels and hormones (such as cortisol) and higher levels of relaxing or anti-stress hormones (such as oxytocin and serotonin).
Through the infant massage process, parents develop a greater understanding of their baby. They learn to read and respect their cues and strengthen their bond and healthy attachment with their child. Parents comment on their improved self-esteem and confidence, improved parenting skills and a chance to discover their baby’s uniqueness through undivided and focused quality time they spend together. For the mother specifically, it impacts her hormones in the same way as the baby, reducing the stress hormones and enhancing the relaxing hormones, thus leading to improved sleep and more effective lactation, decreasing the chance for post-natal depression, and increasing her chance to socialise with other mothers in infant massage classes. Infant massage is also a great way to get the father involved in the child’s life and development at an early stage.
Older siblings can be included in the massage sessions to aid in reducing sibling rivalry, creating a positive bond between older sibling and new baby with increased respect and empathy, thus reducing conflicts in the family.
Healthcare professionals/childcare specialists
Professionals working with children can use infant massage, as a tool to help parents and families in the communities in which they work. It is important to emphasise that parents and primary caregivers (where there is no parent) are taught how to massage their babies. All babies can benefit from infant massage including babies with special needs. These may include babies born prematurely (to start after NICU), visually or hearing impaired, physically or intellectually impaired, babies with genetic syndromes such as Down syndrome, or children on the autism spectrum. Instructors are trained to accommodate the diverse needs of parents and babies. In this way, the massage programme aids in reducing stress and isolation that parents of special needs babies may feel in the initial stages, as well as enhancing inclusivity of these families into a healthy society.
Touch is an invaluable modality for development and growth on all levels – from the emotional to the physical. The effects of infant massage are immediate, and they last a lifetime.
Editor's note: A special treat for new moms may be a Indian Head massage. Read the article here on Indian Head Massage.