Baby Massage: How and Why You Need to Do It

What’s not to love about a massage? No matter what kind of massage you get—from a deep tissue massage to a prenatal massage and even a perineal massage (OK, that’s a bit of a stretch)—you receive physical and mental benefits. So why not try baby massage for your littlest one. There are some significant benefits to infant massage that we’ll explore in this post.

With that in mind, in this post we’ll explain: 

  • The benefits of massaging baby
  • How to massage a baby
  • The best oil for baby massage

History of Infant Massage

Infant massages are not new. In fact, baby massages have quite the history. Evidence of the earliest infant massage dates back to ancient India. Even then, massages were more than just a form of relaxation—they were incorporated into Ayurvedic medicine as a way to enhance circulation, get rid of toxins, improve digestive function, and boost overall well-being. (source) Infant massages were also recorded as being used in the Qing dynasty in China.

Today we know just how much a newborn benefits from massage and that all babies, particularly low birthweight babies, often thrive when exposed to human touch.

Benefits of Baby Massage

“There are a myriad of benefits to infant massage, both physiological and psychological,” says Judith Koch, a massage educator through the Institute of Somatic Therapy.

“Infant massage is paramount to maximizing a child’s potential,” says Andrea Kelly, CEO of the World Institute for Nurturing Communication.

“Infant massage helps parents bond with their children, and helps with attachment. It also helps children learn early on that they are able to set boundaries,” says Stephanie Agakian, a certified educator of infant massage at Bodhi Body Studios.

This is just a small sample of professionals who see the benefits of infant massages firsthand. And hard data backs this: Over 100 studies confirm the wide range of massage benefits for common maladies from gas to colic to sleeping problems. Let’s unpack some of the biggest benefits of baby massage:

1. Baby massage facilitates weight gain

When Stephanie Agakian gave her birth to her baby girl at 25 weeks gestation, she was a mere 1 lb 5 ounces. Agakian was told to massage her baby at home to promote growth and overall health. That’s because, many studies link massage with healthy weight gain.

According to this study, premature babies who received “touch therapy” (a massage), gained 47 percent more weight than premature babies who did not receive any massages. (WOW!)

In another study, newborns who received massage gained more weight per day, appeared more aware, and had increased motor skills. A more recent study supports these findings, adding that baby massage increases bone density, too.

2. Baby massage lowers chance of jaundice

Recent studies suggest infant massage can also reduce bilirubin levels—the compound in blood that causes jaundice—and increase the frequency of bowl movement, which helps expel excess bilirubin from the body, not to mention constipation.

Benefits of Baby Massage - Mother Massaging Baby's Foot

3. Baby massage reduces stress

There are many studies that show human touch reduces stress and lowers blood pressure in adults, and babies are no different. This study found evidence that massage therapy can be life-saving for premature babies.

In one study, massaged babies showed improved heart rate variability (HRV)—a measure of nervous system function—every week. The researchers concluded baby massage markedly reduces stress and, therefore, promotes the maturation of preemies’ immature nervous systems.

So how do massages lower stress hormones? Touch causes endorphins to be released, which then causes cortisol to drop. As a result, babies’ “senses of safety and security are increased, and all of this brings the individual into a more balanced state of well-being overall,” says Ronda Cheatham, owner of A Touch of Grace Massage Therapy in Remington, Virginia.

4. Baby massage reduces colic

Have you ever wondered why so many infant seats, rockers, and swings have a vibrating feature? It’s because the vibration can actually help relieve colic. But research shows prolonged time in chairs or other baby containers are not good for baby’s development. This study found that infant massage is comparable to vibrating chairs in terms of successfully calming a colicky baby. 

5. Baby massage promotes sleep

Research from the University of Warwick found that baby massage lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and stimulates melatonin production. Because melatonin’s main job is to regulate sleep cycles, baby massage helps babies fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. (Yippee!)

“Given the apparent effect of infant massage on stress hormones, it is not surprising to find some evidence of an effect on sleep and crying,” — Angela Underdown, University of Warwick

6. Baby massage strengthens bonds between mama (or papa) and baby

Studies show that the bond between baby and mama is reinforced through eye contact as well as skin-to-skin contact. Further research suggests infant massage is especially helpful for mothers with postpartum depression who have trouble bonding with their babies. 

“When parents massage their baby, hormones are released to help [the parents] relax. Through massage, they learn to understand their baby, building their confidence…” — Linda Storm, founding executive director of Infant Massage USA

But the benefits don’t just apply to mama. A study published in the Journal of Perinatal Education found that baby massage significantly reduced paternal stress and improved the bond between dad and baby. 

Studies also show that parents who practice infant massage are better able to communicate with their children. And parents of chronically ill children report lower levels of anxiety as a result of practicing baby massage.

7. Baby massage relieves gas or constipation

Because babies have an underdeveloped sphincter in their esophagus, they aren’t able to burp on their own. This causes gas to build up in their system, causing belly discomfort. Infant massage helps relieve that pressure, says Cheatham.

Gently knead your fingers under your baby’s rib clockwise (the direction that baby’s GI system runs) to promote good digestion and a healthy GI system.

8. Baby massage enhances learning

Studies show that massages can promote alertness, and when baby is more alert, he/she learns more. In one study, 4-month-olds who were given 8-minute massages responded more favorably to audio-visual habituation tasks than infants who did not receive massage.

“A relationship has been shown between skin-to-skin touch and intelligence,” says Koch. “The more tactile stimulation a baby receives in its first months of life up through the first year can impact their brain development permanently.”

Another study shows that this benefit of massage applies to preschoolers as well. When preschoolers are tested post-massage, they perform better.

9. Baby massage improves certain conditions

Just like massage therapy can be used to treat various conditions in adults, massage therapy can also be used to treat conditions in babies and young children. For instance, children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder performed better on tests after a massage. The same was true for children with ADHD. Other pediatric psychiatric disorders that were also improved by massage included:

  • Bulimia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Bottom line: When children and babies are massaged, they are less stressed, more alert, and notice a decrease in the symptoms of their disorder.

But is Baby Massage Safe?

Babies are known for their oh-so-soft skin, but that delicately soft skin is extremely sensitive. With all of those nerve receptors, it’s possible to overstimulate baby.

That being said, the benefits of infant massage greatly outweigh any drawbacks and is very safe if you follow a few safety tips:

  • Avoid massage oil on the face: It’s too easy for it to drip into little eyes or mouths
  • Avoid massaging the top of the head: Baby’s soft spot is still closing
  • Avoid “deep” massages: They may be great for getting knots out of mama’s back, but little ones are not ready for the same intensity.
  • Keep the massage short and sweet: While adults may like a 1 hour massage, infants need only 5-10 minute intervals of this type of touch.
  • Always stop if baby shows signs she’s had enough: Such as crying, squirming, or falling asleep
  • Avoid massage oils with harsh ingredients: Make sure whatever you use does not have artificial dyes, artificial perfumes, parabens, PEG, or EDTA.
  • Be careful picking baby up after a massage: Massage oil can affect your grip and/or make baby slippery!

Check with baby’s pediatrician if baby has any underlying conditions that may interfere with a massage. For instance, some micropreemie babies cannot be handled too much due to changes in baby’s heart rate. Your healthcare provider can help decide what’s right for your baby. 

When to Massage Baby

For most parents, only five minutes per diaper change is enough to encourage a healthy digestive system, ease symptoms of colic, and promote a quiet and restful evening. (source)

Age

It’s never too early to start massaging your baby. Your baby’s first massage might even be on his birth day when you rub in the vernix. However, if you massage a newborn, you’ll want to be extra careful when using any oils on his sensitive newborn skin.

Time of day

The time of day you choose to massage your baby could make a difference in how well baby responds to the massage. Avoid massaging baby too soon after a feeding, since it may cause baby to spit up.

Some of the best times to massage baby are:

  • About 45 minutes after eating
  • When baby is calm, alert, and awake
  • Right before bed
  • After a diaper change

How to Do a Baby Massage

You’re ready to massage baby, but what exactly are you supposed to do? Just follow a few simple steps:

1. Set the mood

Dim the lights, shut off your phone, turn on some soft music if you’d like, and make sure the room is warm. What’s considered warm? About 75 degrees F.

2. Place baby on a safe surface

Choose a comfortable, but flat surface. This may be a floor, your bed (don’t leave baby unattended!), or baby’s changing table.

3. Undress baby

You can ditch the diaper if you want. A little air time will even be beneficial for baby’s bum if she has a diaper rash. Just be sure to slide a towel or two under baby if they are diaper-free. The prefold inserts for cloth diapers work well in this situation.

4. Gentle touch

Now is not the time for tickling. You want a calm, peaceful mood. For small infants, use soft, gentle strokes. For toddlers, you can use more firm “massage” strokes. Think of a massage stroke as smoothing your baby’s skin, rather than rubbing it.

5. Target the right body parts

Benefits of Baby Massage - Mother Massaging Baby's Foot

Massage baby’s feet using soft, gentle strokes.

Benefits of Baby Massage - Mother Massaging Baby's Legs

Massage baby’s legs, working the shins and the thighs.

Benefits of Baby Massage - Mother Massage Baby's Arms

Move to the arms, making sure to massage baby’s hands, too.

Benefits of Baby Massage - Mother Massage Baby's Stomach

For baby’s stomach, massage in a clockwise direction (the same way as baby’s digestive system moves).

Benefits of Baby Massage - Mother Massage Baby's Chest

Massage baby’s chest, but avoid the delicate head and neck area.

Benefits of Baby Massage - Mother Massage Baby's Back

Flip baby over and massage his/her back.

*Avoid massaging the head since your baby still has soft spots

6. Bond with your baby

Talk softy, sing a lullaby, or gently shhhhh your baby. Look baby in the eyes to enhance the connection between the two of you.

7. Know when to stop

If baby starts to fuss, stop the massage and resume at a later time. Common reasons why babies start to fuss during a massage is that they are hungry, too cold, or even bored. Hey, babies are human too! 😉

Feeling motivated? Here’s a good example of infant massage:

 

Do I Need Baby Massage Oil?

While you don’t need baby massage oil, using massage oil can make the experience more comfortable and enjoyable, because it lessens the friction between skin.

According to a study published in the journal Indian Pediatrics, the type of massage oil you use can affect the health and growth of your baby. Researchers found that when coconut oil (as opposed to mineral oil) was used, the babies (both preterm and full-time) gained more weight. 

Recent research from the University of Manchester also studied the role of oil used in baby massages, and found that olive oil and sunflower oil seemed to break down baby’s skin barrier function. Babies massaged with these oils were more at risk for developing skin conditions like eczema.

Best baby massage oil

  • Coconut oil: Yes, just use a small dap of coconut oil for your massage oil. Babies don’t need fancy! Coconut oil is antimicrobial, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and antiviral. I kept a small jar in my baby’s drawer, as I used coconut oil for diaper cream as well. (This is my favorite brand.)
  • Whipped Shea Butter with Coconut oil: If your baby has drier skin, shea butter helps to hydrate and seal in moisture. This whipped cream is mixed with coconut oil for added benefit. No other ingredients. (You can purchase here.)
  • YL Seedlings: If you want something to add in the therapeutic value of essential oils, try this gentle and nourishing baby massage oil. (Get more info on ordering YL here.)

Using essential oils

Never apply undiluted essential oils to a baby’s skin—they are too concentrated and can cause allergic reactions, skin irritations, or a detox response. Always ensure proper dilution ratios when using essential oils near or for children. Best to use occasionally versus daily.

A Note About Infant Massage

There’s no denying that some of these benefits are pretty amazing, but take your child’s lead. If he/she doesn’t like the massage, just stop for now; you can try again when baby is less fussy. The most important thing to do is keep it really simple—baby massage doesn’t have to be perfectly executed to be effective. Just be safe, have fun, and enjoy bonding with baby!

How About You?

Have you tried giving an infant massage to your baby? What benefits did it have for you or your baby?

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