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The Benefits of Baby Massage

mother holding baby

You know what happens: The minute you put your baby down, she cries. Pick her up and, presto -- she's serene and smiley again. If just holding your baby can be so soothing, imagine how she'll benefit from a full-body massage. In fact, studies have shown that massaging an infant can reduce crying and fussiness, help her sleep more peacefully, and alleviate common wail-inducers like constipation and colic. Some say that it even boosts a baby's ability to fight off germs.

"When you give your baby a massage, you're actually stimulating her central nervous system," explains Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. "That sets off a chain reaction: It makes her brain produce more serotonin, a feel-good chemical, and less cortisol, a hormone that's secreted in response to stress. As a result, your baby's heart rate and breathing slow down, and she becomes more relaxed. "

Giving your infant regular massages is good for his emotional well-being too. "Affectionate touch and rhythmic movement are among the most powerful forms of communication between babies and their parents, so they're great ways for you to bond," says K. Mark Sossin, PhD, director of the Parent-Infant Research Nursery at Pace University, in New York City. The payoff of baby massage trickles down to parents. "It's easy to feel helpless with a newborn, but giving him a gentle rubdown can help you feel more in control," explains Elaine Fogel Schneider, PhD, author of Massaging Your Baby: The Joy of Touch Time. "It will help you learn how to read your baby's signals and respond better to his unique needs."

Giving your baby a massage is as simple as it is enjoyable. All you need is 10 to 15 minutes. Pick a time when you're relaxed and your baby is quiet but alert. (If you try to massage a fussy baby, you may overstimulate him and make him even more unhappy.) Try starting after a diaper change or as part of a bathtime ritual.

Before you begin, make sure the room is warm and quiet. Take off any jewelry that could get in the way, and grab some baby oil. Strip your baby down to his diaper, and then lay him facing up on a soft towel or blanket, with a pillow under his head. Begin by holding your baby's hands and gently rubbing his palms with your thumbs a few times. When he seems tuned in to you, try these soothing techniques described by Dr. Schneider, starting with your baby's legs and working your way up his body.

Leg Massage

Gently but firmly wrap your hands around your baby's leg and glide your hands down from thigh to ankle. Do this a few times; then repeat on the other leg.

Belly Massage

Place your hands at the level of your baby's navel. In a clockwise motion, rub your fingertips firmly and gently over her tummy in a circular motion. Repeat.

Arm Massage

Gently roll your baby's arm between your hands, starting at his shoulder and moving down to his wrist. Repeat two to three times, and then switch to his other arm.

Neck Massage

Support your infant's head and upper body with one hand. Place the thumb of your other hand on one side of her neck and your first two fingers on the other side. Then use your fingertips to gently rub your baby's neck in a circular motion. Repeat these circles a few times.

Colic-Relief Massage

First give your baby a belly massage. Then bend his knees up to his tummy and hold for about 30 seconds before releasing. Repeat a few times. Then place the edge of one hand on your baby's belly, gliding from the belly button down in a rhythmic pattern, to help release pent-up gas. Repeat if needed.

Skin-to-skin contact is good for all babies, but it's especially helpful for infants born prematurely. That's why most neonatal intensive care units encourage "kangaroo care," where a mom places her preemie on her bare chest, holding him tummy-to-tummy. "This kind of contact relaxes a preterm infant and can help him grow," says Susan Ludington, PhD, a professor of pediatric nursing at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, who has studied kangaroo care extensively.

A Worldwide Technique

The practice began in South America in the late 1970s as a way to care for preemies in poor areas with limited neonatal care. Because it has so many benefits, kangaroo care subsequently became popular around the globe. "We know that this kind of skin-to-skin contact can encourage sleep and weight gain and can reduce infections and breathing problems in preterm infants," Dr. Ludington says.

A Boon for All Babies

Even full-term babies can benefit: In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that healthy, full-term babies who'd had kangaroo care slept more, fussed and cried less, and made fewer startled motions than those who went straight to the nursery.

Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Parents magazine.