Nurture your baby through your own touch
The (premature) babies receiving extra touch therapy in the form of massage had, on average, a hospital stay shorter by six days. They did not suffer from runny noses, colds or congestion. Massage also assisted parents and babies through their crisis by enhancing tactile expressions of love and assisting the bonding process when the crisis had caused bonding delays. Massage provides a time for the parent to become intimately acquainted with their baby’s body language: how their body looks and feels when tense or at ease. Massage combines intimacy, communication, play and care-taking and can greatly enhance a parent’s feelings of competence. When the infant is touched and so made to feel comfortable, it will express pleasure and the parent will be encouraged to continue.
What many people do not realise is that communication for a baby — the first language of its development — is through the skin. Nature begins infant massage in the womb. First the baby floats and rocks; slowly its world surrounds it ever more closely until these gentle caresses later become the contractions that rhythmically squeeze and push the baby into the world.
For two decades, research findings have been documented that show that the unfolding of human potential depends on a nurtured climate during childhood. Studies have demonstrated that infants whose mothers had difficulty in touching, cuddling and talking to them during the first few months of life are more likely to suffer from developmental and growth delays.
Renowned anthropologist Ashley Montague, the author of Touching, states that the "higher a subject’s self-esteem, the more he communicates through touch". Montague also documents Harlow’s famous monkey experiments which were the first to show that, for infant monkeys, contact and comfort are even more important than food. What happens when monkeys are deprived of touch is similar to what happens with human infants when they suffer from "failure to thrive" syndrome. These babies exhibit the same type of behaviour as the infant monkeys: they are given all the food they need yet continue to deteriorate. Ruth Ryce, a US psychologist, has conducted studies with premature babies. One group of 15 premature babies were mothered in the usual new-born care ways while the parents of the experimental group of 15 premature babies were taught a daily massage and rocking regime. At four months, the babies who had been massaged were ahead both in their neurological development and weight gain.
The skin is our largest organ, about 2500 square centimetres on a newborn. The tactile system is the earliest sensory system to become functional in all species, not just humans. The skin is fully functional in embryos at around eight weeks of age, approximately 2.5 centimetres or one inch long. In addition to being our largest organ, the skin has a very large representation in the brain.
A newborn baby’s skin is called upon to make many new adaptive responses to an environment more complex than that of the womb — with viruses, bacteria, changes in temperature, humidity, light, radiation etc. The skin is equipped to respond with extraordinary efficiency to all these stimuli. However, when you massage your baby, what you put on his or her skin and how you stroke and touch your baby become exceedingly important.
Physically, massage acts to stimulate nurturing, caring messages to the brain and nervous system. Statistics produced by Pearce (1977) and Weisberger (1984) show it aids in relaxing the infant and parent/caregiver, so reducing stress. As it is estimated that stress plays a part in 60 to 90 per cent of all illnesses, this is a very effective preventative medicine as well as being highly effective in recovery.
Benefits of infant massage
Massaging your infant also improves communication skills, builds and teaches trust, strengthens the bonding processes and aids in toning the baby’s intestinal system. As a result, it helps to relieve:
- Colic, gas and constipation. The rhythmic strokes of abdominal massage are done in the same direction as the intestine. This aids and regulates the natural wave-like movements of the intestines, so reducing the incidence of colic, gas and constipation.
- Respiratory disorders, chest and sinus congestion. The soothing strokes of massage aid in relaxing chest, back, neck and facial muscles. This release allows the baby to take deeper breaths, which may have been previously impossible due to tight, restricting, tense muscles. With the muscles released, both baby and parent/caregiver then relax and a positive cycle begins.
- Sleeping disorders. Massage strokes replace the natural "ticking" most mother animals exhibit. These strokes, being a non-verbal form of communication, register messages of caring, nurturing and bonding on the infant’s brain. A sense of emotional well-being is experienced, the baby’s parents’ confidence increases, tense muscles relax and the infant becomes at peace and drifts effortlessly into sleep.
At the University of Miami Medical Centre (1986), when pre-term, special-needs and handicapped babies were massaged daily, the pre-term babies averaged 47 per cent greater weight gain per day, were more active and alert during wake behaviour observations, exhibited deeper, more restful sleep patterns and showed more mature habituation orientation and motor and range of state behaviours than babies who were cared for in the ‘normal’ ways (the control babies).
The babies receiving extra touch therapy in the form of massage had, on average, hospital stays shorter by six days. They did not suffer from runny noses, colds or congestion. Massage also assisted parents and babies through their crisis by enhancing tactile expressions of love and assisting the bonding process when the crisis had caused bonding delays.
Separation at birth, whether for medical reasons or hospital policy, are the most common situations which can delay bonding. Others include adoption, step-parenting and the birth of a handicapped or unwanted child. When infant massage is taught within the high-risk population, it can also become important in preventing future child abuse or neglect.
The draining demands of an infant can produce hostile feelings in emotionally overwhelmed parents. The parent may draw away from the child rather than towards him or her, while parents who themselves were battered or neglected may find difficulty in caring for their baby in a nurturing way. The important elements that help to form the bonds between the mother/father and the infant include eye-to-eye and skin-to-skin contact, the mother’s voice and the baby’s response to it, odour, rhythms of communication and the activation of maternal hormones by the mother’s close contact, touching and stroking of her baby.
Massage provides a time for the parent to become intimately acquainted with their baby’s body language, how their body looks and feels when they are tense or at ease. Massage combines intimacy, communication, play and care-taking and can greatly enhance a parent’s feelings of competence. When the infant is touched and so made to feel comfortable, it will express pleasure and the parent will be encouraged to continue.
Bonding research suggests that the baby’s basic feelings of trust that come from being lovingly touched and held securely will assist in forming true attachment between parent and infant. Infant massage places special focus on respect and bonding. It is something you do with your baby, not something you do to your baby. Parents are encouraged to ask their baby, "Would you like to receive a massage now?"
As adults, we choose when we would like to receive massage and then, usually, make an appointment. Babies communicate their wishes in quite subtle, physical ways, so parents are encouraged to watch their baby for physical "yes" or "no" responses. Some "no" physical responses would include baby looking away, arching back and/or rolling away, getting the hiccups, whingeing, becoming stiff through the body, dribbling, pushing parent hands away, kicking strongly and jerkily or beginning to cry.
Some "yes" physical responses would include eye contact, a smile, a "goo" or "ga", a relaxed, receptive body, arm or leg, flapping arms and/or bouncing legs. One or more of these subtle messages may be conveyed. It usually takes only a very short time for baby to associate a "key", such as the parent rubbing hands together to create a swishing sound when they ask their baby if they would like to receive massage. The baby quickly associates this sound with the gesture and a special sharing/bonding time with mum/dad/grandparent/caregiver. This then becomes an obvious form of communication as babies do not have a 12- or 24-hour clock to follow as we do.
In many cultures the art of infant massage is an ancient one. Even in our culture, where touching is generally not encouraged, cuddling, stroking and soothing a baby is a universal, instinctive reaction. However, as that baby grows through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, tactile stimulation is often deficient; we forget how important a simple thing like touch can be. Indeed, touching is more than an emotional need: it promotes healthy physiological development as well.
More and more physicians are realising the importance of tactile stimulation in the prevention and treatment of illness. Dr Bernard Siegel, a paediatric surgeon in the USA, has written a book, Love, Medicine & Miracles, emphasising the importance of psychological factors in disease and wellness. He says, "We will begin to add another dimension to medicine when doctors and patients understand the healing power of touch."
Infant massage movements should be gentle and carefully designed so that they are easy to learn and can be specially accommodated for an individual baby’s needs or adapted to older children and adults. As with any massage technique, it is important to learn from a qualified practitioner to ensure you massage in such a way that does not accidentally harm your baby.