A healing touch...
All over the world and throughout the centuries, the massaging of infants has been an essential part of their care and remains so in many societies today, though not until recent times in the UK. Whilst childcare has become more child centred and relaxed, research has shown that irrevocable damage can be done to children when they have been deprived of a secure and loving environment. Thus the importance of infant massage is now been recognised and there are many practitioners teaching parents the techniques all over the country including premature baby units.
The skin is the largest organ of the body. It can be described as the exposed part of the nervous system. Skin is a protective barrier, an excretory organ, a sensory receptor, and an information source of sensation. The skin’s sensitivity is such that its responses to internal and external stimuli exceeds all other sense organs except the brain.
Touch is the “mother of the senses”. It is evident in an embryo of six weeks gestation, when it is only one inch long!
Although all senses play a crucial role in its perception of its world, touch is as essential as food for the infant, and an important factor in normal mental and social behaviour. At birth touch is the most developed sense. It is therefore not surprising that massage can stimulate the nerve centres in the brain, lowering stress levels and thereby resulting in improved immune systems.
There are many benefits gained from massaging your baby. It enhances the bonding process that is not always spontaneously achieved immediately after birth. Eye contact, skin contact and vocalisation all come to play during the massage session. The “dance” between the baby’s responses and those of his parents enables them learn to read his clues and needs thereby strengthening their mutual attachment.
Mothers with post-natal depression may find that massaging their baby actually enhances their own sense of well being because there is an increase in the production of prolactin and oxytocin, hormones that furthers the mothering instincts. Benefits to the baby include the reduction of colic symptoms, improvement to digestion, blood circulation and balance. It gives the baby security, love and a sense of well-being. It can also improve sleep patterns.
Preparation for massage
• Warm, draught free with no overhead lighting
• Quiet environment - no TV or music as it could prove over stimulating for the baby. It is advisable not to have more than one kind of stimulation at a time.
• Find a comfortable position, on the floor, back supported with knees slightly bent and soles of your feet pressed together ( “cradle” position) the baby’s head rests on your feet enabling good eye contact.
• Remove jewellery that could harm the baby and use a relaxation technique to remove all stressful feelings prior to starting the session.
• The ideal time to massage your baby is when he is in a quiet alert state; that is when he is attentively focusing and there is little body movement. At this time the response to stimuli will be slower. Do not massage if the baby is ill or distressed.
• Always be guided by your baby’s clues.
• Expose the baby gently, one body part at a time.
• Massage strokes should be firm and slow
• Use plenty of oil, lubricating your hands well whenever necessary.
• It will take several sessions before the baby can tolerate a full massage. Be guided by his responses, it may only be possible to massage one body part at a time.
• The baby may sometimes resist having a part of their body massaged. If you hold the part gently but firmly he will gradually relax and get used to being touched and will start to accept the massage. These containment holds/strokes should also be used after completing the different parts of his body.
• Ask the baby’s permission before starting the session, and inform him when moving onto a new body part. This will become an essential part of the routine and will alert him to look forward to this enjoyable experience, which hopefully will become a regular and an enriching interaction between the baby and his parents.
• There are some babies that are very stressed and fractious maybe following a difficult delivery. After a massage session, these babies can become distressed and cry for a period before relaxing into sleep. Crying and tears release stress hormones and are very healing.
There are several types of oil that may be used for massage.
Cold Pressed Organic Vegetable Oils
These oils are a good medium for massage as they are easily absorbed; contain Vitamin E and will not harm the baby should he suck his fingers after the massage. They allow the skin to function normally and does not interfere with photo-therapy. They have no scent, so will not inhibit the bonding process which rely on the parent’s natural odour.
They could contain allergens and should be tried on a small area of skin prior to use. The quality of the oil can vary due to harvest and storage and there is an instability over time when it deteriorates and becomes rancid.
Fractionated coconut oil
This oil is perfume free and does not oxidise as quickly as other oils, it is not commonly associated with allergic reaction and the process of fractionation removes fungal spores and moulds.
It is more difficult to source this oil.
Cheap to buy, has no allergens or sensitisation and does not go off.
Not a good medium for massage as the oil is not absorbed, so leaving the skin very slippery. This oil is not for ingestion and there are unknown risk factors should the baby suck his fingers after a massage.
While essential oils have shown to benefit adults, they are not advised in infant massage where one does not want to mask the parent’s own odour. Should the parent wish to use\essential oils it would be advisable to consult a registered aromatherapist who would treat the baby as an individual.
The strokes used in infant massage are for both stimulation and relaxation; they are derived from Swedish and Indian massage techniques and also include a reflexology component. For the older baby there is baby yoga that is a useful adjunct to the basic massage process.
Massage strokes are more appropriately described through illustration or photographs (Johnson and Johnson do a very good leaflet). However the best way to learn the techniques is to be shown by a qualified infant massage instructor, this could be in a group or as individual. Many of these practitioners are health visitors and your own health visitor may well have the training or at least know of a local group in your area. The addresses at the end of this article will have all the registered practitioners practicing in the country.
The Older Child
Massage is not just for the infant, but as a regular part of his life, it can be continued and modified throughout his childhood.
• Toddler: Choose a time, maybe prior to bedtime and incorporate a story into the massage session.
• School child: These sessions could modified for the budding “footballer” or “ballerina” but as the child grows he may only allow certain parts of his body to be touched.
• Teenager: Only massage to feet or hands may be tolerated in this age group.
Our children’s school life is very stressful and they are often reluctant to air their worries with their parents, a regular massage will help them to relax and maybe voice any of their innermost fears or problems they may have.