A good night’s sleep is hard to come by for most newborns and their parents. Jackie Rush, her husband Mark Kozy and their baby Sylvia, however, seem to have found a solution: Just before bedtime, Jackie lays down seven-month-old Sylvia, pulls off her tiny socks and takes out the massage oil. Sylvia instantly settles down.
“It doesn’t matter how fussy she is,” says Jackie, clearly delighted with the easy sleep routine. “She gets a massage, bath and bottle every night, then it’s off to dreamland for her.”
Jackie and Mark, of Sliverville (near Addison and Pulaski), took an infant massage course at Swedish Covenant Hospital when Sylvia was just seven weeks old and bedtime was difficult. Today it’s a soothing daily ritual for the whole family.
Among many benefits, infant massage helps babies get to sleep faster, establishes a deeper, longer sleep pattern, boosts baby’s immune system and helps mom and dad form a stronger connection with their newborn.
“Infant massage is really great quality one-on-one time, especially when babies are so small that they really can’t play,” said Heather Rabbitt, a clinical massage therapist and certified infant massage instructor at Galter LifeCenter.
“Believe it or not, babies get stressed out,” Rabbitt says. “Massage helps them learn what relaxation is at a young age, and studies have shown they’ll be more relaxed as they grow.”
A smarter, healthier baby
In addition to calming a baby, massage helps with digestion and gassiness by stimulating the stomach and large intestine. Tummy massage, explains Rabbitt, is extremely helpful for soothing colicky babies.
Other studies have shown that, like adults, babies derive a significant amount of relaxation and good feeling from massage because it decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which is harmful for brain development. Reduction in this hormone can cause an increase in the antibodies that fight infection and facilitate healthy weight gain.
More studies still have found that infant massage may increase babies’ alertness, attentiveness and ability to learn.
“Overall, brain development is defined and guided by our environment, and infant massage helps create a physical and emotional environment for baby that is open to learning,” Rabbitt said. “The sensation of touch can facilitates this brain development and creates denser and more comprehensive brain cells.”
This theory is based on the fact that babies (by about age 1) naturally have about 150 percent more neural connections (brain cells) than adults do. As babies age, their bodies start to shed the connections that are not being used. But if their brains are well stimulated at an early age, they retain more information, and are more responsive to learning.
Therefore, it is essential that babies take in as much sensation and information as possible during that time, and infant massage can serve as the needed stimulus. Infant massage techniques are similar to adult massage techniques though gentler, and generally 20 minutes is the maximum time for massage. It’s extremely easy to learn, said Rabbitt.
Bonding tool for dad and baby
Massage is a great tool for parents, especially if swaddling and rocking aren’t working. When a parent gets home from work, for example, infant massage provides quality time that comforts baby and decreases the parent’s stress.
The connection created by massage can be especially important for dads, who often feel left out because they haven’t carried the baby for nine months and don’t experience the intimacy of breastfeeding.
Studies have shown that it’s important for both parents to facilitate a baby’s development, and touch plays an important part in that. Infant massage gives dads a chance to form a close bond that fosters an infant’s trust.
The first dad that Rabbitt taught was timid and afraid of hurting his baby. With a little practice, however, infant massage helped him understand how to hold and touch his son.
“He felt more comfortable being with his baby in public and more comfortable soothing his son if he was alone with him,” Rabbitt said.
One study showed three-month-old infants who were massaged (starting at four-weeks postpartum) greeted their fathers with more eye contact, smiling and vocalizing than infants who weren’t massaged by their dads.
“Touch is extremely important in the first year of life,” Rabbitt says. “The positive communication baby receives through touch, including massage, will create a base in how he’ll interact later with others.”
Photo by Iwona Biedermann Photography.