For decades, the effects of touch on the healing and survival of various species have been studied, documented, and even celebrated by everyone from social workers to scholars to scientists.
In 1995, twins Kyrie and Brielle Jackson, born 12 weeks premature, spent critical weeks in separate incubators where 3-lb. Kyrie began to thrive, but 2-lb. Brielle fought for her life. Slipping into critical condition, as a last resort a compassionate nurse defied hospital policy and put the two girls together, a practice she’d heard was common in Europe but not in the U.S. As Kyrie slid an arm around her sister, the girls were close together for the first time since being in the womb. Brielle’s blood oxygen levels began to rise for the first time, her rapid heart rate slowed, breathing stabilized, she soon began to gain weight, and she ultimately survived.
For infants, touch is clearly known to mean the difference between life and death, with focused massage increasing touch’s benefits to include improved digestion, deeper sleep, mitigation of colic or stress, calming of anxiety and much more. The concept first brought to this country in the mid-1970s by Vimala Schneider McClure, a former health worker who founded the International Association of Infant Massage in 1976, McClure had observed the healing effects of massage on sick and orphaned babies in India and went on to write several books on the subject.
“Touch is a natural part of life…you see it create trust even in the animal kingdom,” said Janelle Brown, certified massage therapist and infant massage instructor, who advocates that when practicing massage, it’s also important for the parent to bring a sense of calm to the environment. “They must really focus on their own breathing techniques, not bringing their own anxieties or worries (which create tension) to the bodies of their babies,” she says.
With infant massage practiced using techniques that include foot reflexology, Brown said massaging both feet clockwise can relieve constipation, gas, and colic, as the digestive system moves in a clockwise direction.
Another way to alleviate colic is to use a finger to draw “I.L.Y.,” or I love you, along the intestines, to stimulate them, experts say. The tracing follows the path food takes and is reported to provide relief.
For mothers suffering postpartum depression, studies have shown that engaging in newborn massage certainly benefits the baby, but often promotes healing for the mother through parent-infant interaction and communication. Bonding, which is a natural byproduct of infant massage and essential to both baby and mother, occurs as the infant is calmed and nurtured by the touch, which in turn has a positive effect on the mother.
For children from birth to age 5, neural pathways for social and emotional growth are said to develop, and attachment disorders–or the inability to bond with others throughout life–often result from a deficit of touch during infancy. A massage ritual can ensure rich and rapid growth in that area.
Like adults, some babies develop a preference and may react more favorably to a gentle head massage, for example, if their feet are ticklish. But whatever your baby desires, establishing a time to do it every day will benefit both parent and child. Books, DVD’s, websites, classes, health professionals, and child development resources in your community can help steer you in the right direction if you are considering adding massage to your baby’s daily regimen. At the very least, practicing infant massage is an opportunity to slow down and focus on the special time together you both deserve.