By Suzanne P. Reese, IAIMT, author of Baby Massage, www.infantmassageusa.org
Parents all over the world search high and low for all the things they can get their hands on that can help their baby grow and thrive. Tools that promise education and enrichment are sought out and the most coveted ones are often the most expensive. Many parents don’t realize they have the most educational, enriching, and least expensive tools right before them – their hands.
Infant massage is one ready expression of nurturing and compassionate touch, a key ingredient to building the foundation in which some of the most critical human virtues can be found: acknowledgment, validation, safety, trust, security, mutual respect and admiration, healthy communication, healthy boundaries, high self-esteem, and resilience. Parents and children experience mutual empowerment when they discover their ability to effectively communicate through every learning channel. Touch, as non-verbal communication, can be a powerful tool for connection.
What does my baby want? If we ask, often, we will get an answer, and the language our babies use is simple – we just have to watch and listen with our heart. The art of infant massage will help up master this “new” ancient language that science has proven is a key to not just surviving, but thriving. Given the culture we live in today, the ability to thrive on human connection seems to be proving more significant than ever.
When a parent touches his/her baby with compassion, the baby will often touch back – triggering an instinctive cycle of desire to want to keep reaching back to one another. A simple and complex cycle of bonding and attachment are activated here – thanks to a hormone called oxytocin.
Benefits of Nurturing Touch
Through the practice of infant massage, we have the power to release a key hormone that is the anti-stress hormone: oxytocin, the “Love Hormone.” It assists in lowering the stress hormone cortisol, it floods pain receptors in the nervous system and decreases pain, it can help us feel connected to another human being – facilitating feelings of affinity – and, most important, it is a key element of the psychobiological process of falling in love.
Parents who fall in love with their infants nurture children who fall in love with themselves and their parents. The concept of loving one’s self has its roots in being loved. Nurturing touch can be a valuable vehicle that can carry one of life’s greatest and most fundamental needs for survival: love. And it’s amazing!
There are so many benefits to incorporating infant massage into our daily lives with our children. Practically speaking, the benefits of infant massage are outlined in four main categories. These are some of the outcomes parents can expect to achieve:
- Language and learning
- Overall growth and development
- Digestion: Nutrient absorption and proper elimination
- Immune system, circulation, and endocrine function
- Regulation of sleep cycles
- Self-regulation and state transition
- Increase in anti-stress hormones (e.g., oxytocin)
- Decrease in stress hormones (e.g., cortisol)
- Fewer symptoms of colic and general gastrointestinal discomfort
- Less fear, pain, and anxiety
- Eliminates loneliness
- Less crying
- Healthy bonding and attachment
- Increased sociability
- Utilizing nonverbal language
- Family/sibling involvement
Infant Massage Classes
Many families seek out the guidance of a Certified Educator of Infant Massage. Certified Educators lead private and group classes. There is a benefit to the social aspect of group courses, but some families may have a need for private classes – and that is certainly all right. Classes typically run about 90 minutes and are one week apart for five weeks. Parents learn the approach to infant massage that plays a critical role in the success of achieving the benefits. Songs, poems, and rhymes play a part in the massage interaction with our children. Strokes will be learned, sharing is inevitable, and fun is to be had!
Planning Nurturing Touch into the Day
Something for parents and caregivers to remember is that nurturing and compassionate touch can happen any time. Some families may want to set a routine, while others are more comfortable fitting it in whenever they can. There are benefits to both:
- Routine massages can lend themselves to being a cue that it is “bath time,” “sleep time,” or even a stimulating “wake time” massage can get the day going. During these times, the baby will learn that this “massage time” correlates with the next step in the day and the baby will begin to relate the massage with, for example, sleep. In this case, with all the hormonal aspects involved, it can be a good night’s sleep in store for all!
- Spontaneous massages are happen anytime, anywhere. While breastfeeding, mom can simply rub her baby’s foot – yes, that’s infant massage! While reading a story, Dad can draw an aspect of the story on his child’s hand (e.g., a flower, the sun, the moon). At mealtime, brother or sister can “plant a garden” on the little one’s back, chest, or belly. They can plant the fruit or vegetable they are about to eat – that’s educational!
So when is the best time for a massage? Our babies will tell us. All we have to do is ask the baby – yes, actually ask. Before engaging in an infant massage exchange with the baby, we ask the baby for permission. Imagine a time when someone touched you – sharing intimate space with you, and you were OK with it. How did it feel? By asking our babies for permission to massage them, we are teaching them they own their body and they have the right to say “yes,” “no,” or even “I don’t know, let’s see.”
“Would you like a massage? May I massage your leg?” This is a healthy start at building the child’s sense of self and self-worth. We honor the child’s response, and we are teaching him that his word is valuable – an early and empowering message!
When do we stop? The baby will tell us. If you wish to stop before your baby gives you a cue, then the certified educator will recommend that you tell your baby “All done!” The safety, predictability, and reliability of the approach at the commencement and close of each infant massage exchange helps build the trust our children need to feel confident in their communication with those who care for them. When we talk with our children, our children learn to talk with us.
Nurturing Touch is Not for Babies Only
When do we stop massaging our children? Hopefully, never! As nurturing and compassionate touch becomes a way of life, then touch as communication bridges the familiar gaps between parents and children throughout life.
Toddlers will learn that healthy touch can be combined with fun and games. As your children grow, boundaries of modesty will naturally increase and more clothing will remain on, but that doesn’t mean massage has to stop.
Young children will often reciprocate – isn’t that nice? These are the same children who don’t want you to kiss and hug in public, but when they need the nurturing that they’ve come to thrive on, they will ask for it and give it in return.
Adolescents will often seek out this time with their parents to share about their life as the symptoms of life’s physical demands are eased for them. The weight of emotional stresses can be lightened by just being present, listening, and touching with the respect and compassion children have come to count on. These children can become the adults that pass on the tradition created through nurturing and compassionate touch. This is a tradition that encompasses all the elements of healthy bonding and attachment. This is a tradition that empowers parents as worthy caregivers and children as worthy individuals.
Promoting Secure Attachment
Together, we can raise a world of compassionate beings. If we let them, children are our teachers. From the very beginning, we are there to foster what they are naturally created for: love.
The brain, the body, and the heart of a child must be nurtured. Words are such a small percentage of our communication.
Let us foster their consciousness and raise our children with the same desires they have for us – to love, to share, to learn, and to live in harmony, and we shall certainly fall in love over and over again with these little people who have so much to give, that can provide us with such a simple form of education and enrichment that families need to thrive in this modern and complex world. Infant massage – it’s amazing!