How to Massage a Baby

You don’t need special training to share the therapeutic benefits of massage with your infant. Follow these tips and techniques to incorporate a regular massage routine into your baby's schedule.

A mother is giving her baby a massage
Photo: Getty Images

For centuries, babies and their parents have enjoyed infant massage. There's also plenty of research to back up the benefits; studies have linked infant massage to improved sleep quality in babies and their parents, stress reduction, healthy brain and physical development, improved non-verbal communication, and more. In short, making time for infant massage in your caretaking routine can reap massive rewards. Here are some baby massage techniques to incorporate into your little one's routine.

The Benefits of Baby Massage

Daily infant massage has many advantages, which the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) breaks down into categories: interaction, stimulation, relief, and relaxation. Researchers find that these benefits affect not only the child, but their entire family and even society as a whole. Here are just a few of the standout benefits of baby massage.

Interaction. Regular massage promotes quality time between parents and baby, encouraging feelings of attachment, love, and trust. This close early contact with parents can encourage the development of empathy and confidence in children.

Stimulation. Infant massage stimulates all body systems—including digestive, hormonal, immune, and circulatory—as well as muscles and joints. Babies may experience improved body awareness, leading to better coordination and balance.

Relief. Parents have reported that massage may help provide relief from gastrointestinal issues such as colic and constipation, teething discomfort, and growing pains.

Relaxation. Infant massage has been linked to improved sleep patterns for babies and their parents, along with a reduction in stress hormones and an increase in "feel-good" hormones.

Getting Started With Infant Massage

Use a blanket or towel, and massage oil in a non-breakable container. (Test the oil on a small spot of your baby's skin and wait a day to make sure no irritation appears.) Start when your baby is in a quiet yet alert state—not immediately after a feeding or when they're sleepy. Sit on the floor with the soles of your feet together, forming a diamond shape with your legs. Drape the blanket over your feet and between your knees.

Undress your baby down to their diaper and place them on the blanket, cradling their head on your feet. Start with a gentle "hello" stroke from baby's head to toes. If your baby stiffens, cries, or becomes irritable, move to another body part or simply end the massage for the day. If they respond well, start gently massaging their body section by section.

Remember to consult your health care provider before beginning a massage routine with your little one. Although infant massage is typically safe, some babies may have underlying conditions that will need to be taken into account.

Massaging a Baby's Tummy

According to IAIM, rubbing a baby's stomach can help relieve ​​gastrointestinal issues like constipation and gas, improve symptoms of colic, and encourage good digestion. Here's the best technique for parents.

1. Hold your hand so your pinky's edge can move like a paddle across your baby's belly. Starting at the base of the rib cage, stroke down with one hand, then the other, in a paddle-wheel-like motion.

2. Massage the abdomen with your fingertips in a circular, clockwise motion.

3. Do the "I Love U" stroke: Trace the letter I down your baby's left side. Then trace an inverted L, stroking across the belly along the base of the ribs from the right side to the left and down. Trace an inverted U, stroking from low on the baby's right side, up and around the navel, and down the left side.

4. Walk your fingers around the navel, clockwise.

5. Hold knees and feet together and gently press knees up toward the abdomen. Rotate your baby's hips around a few times to the right. (This often helps expel gas.)

6. Place hand on tummy horizontally and rock your hand from side to side a few times. Note: Avoid massaging tummy if the cord hasn't completely healed.

Massaging a Baby's Head and Face

A tender head and face massage can release tension, improve blood circulation, and encourage sound sleep before bedtime. And some good news for follically challenged babies: a head massage may even promote hair growth!

1. Cradling your baby's head in both hands, massage the scalp with your fingertips, as if you're shampooing. (Avoid the fontanel, the soft spot on top of baby's head.)

2. Massage the ears between your thumb and index finger.

3. Trace a heart shape on your baby's face, bringing your hands together at the chin.

4. Place your thumbs between your baby's eyebrows, and stroke out.

5. Again with your thumbs, stroke gently out over your baby's closed eyelids.

6. Stroke from the bridge of the nose out over the cheeks.

7. Using your fingertips, massage the jaw in small circles.

Massaging a Baby's Chest

When baby is suffering from a cough, cold, or respiratory infection, a chest massage with a therapeutic oil may help provide some relief from their symptoms. Even for healthy infants, a chest massage can improve breathing patterns and lung health. Consult your pediatrician before giving a chest massage if they're sick.

1. Place both hands on your baby's chest and stroke outward from the sternum to the shoulders.

2. Beginning at the sternum, trace a heart shape bringing both hands up to the shoulders, then down and back together.

3. In a crisscross pattern, stroke diagonally from one side of your baby's hip, up and over the opposite shoulder, and back down to the hip.

Massaging a Baby's Arms

As with the rest of the body, massaging baby's arms can help improve muscle tone and coordination, as well as increase body awareness.

1. With one hand, hold your baby's wrist. Relax the upper arm by tapping it lightly.

2. Hold the baby's wrist with one hand, and hold your other hand in a C-shape around the upper arm; stroke from the shoulder down to the wrist.

3. With each hand grasping the arm, one right above the other, stroke down from shoulder to wrist with both hands rotating in opposite directions, as if you were gently wringing a towel.

4. Massage the palm, moving thumb over thumb from the heel of the hand to the fingers.

5. Stroke down top of hand from wrist to fingertips. Gently squeeze and pull each finger.

6. Massage the wrist by moving your fingers in small circles.

7. Roll their arm between both your hands.

Massaging a Baby's Back

Giving your baby regular back massages may help them feel more comfortable lying on their stomach. If the position makes them fussy, skip it and try targeting another area that seems more comfortable for them.

1. Place your baby on their tummy horizontally in front of you, or lay them across your outstretched legs. Keep their hands in front of them, not at their side.

2. With both of your hands on baby's back, move each hand back and forth (keeping them going in opposite directions) from the base of the neck to their buttocks.

3. Hold your baby's buttocks with one hand and use the other to stroke down from the neck to the buttocks.

4. Using your fingertips, massage in small circles down one side of baby's spine and up the other. Avoid pressing on the spine directly.

5. Massage their shoulders with small circular motions.

6. Massage their buttocks with big circular motions.

7. Holding your fingers like a rake, stroke down their back.

Massaging a Baby's Legs

Although your baby may not be walking yet, a gentle leg massage can still help release tension and promote relaxation.

1. Lift one of your baby's legs by the ankle and relax it by lightly tapping the upper thigh.

2. Hold the ankle with one hand and hold your other hand in a C-shape, thumb down, around your baby's upper thigh. Stroke from the thigh down to the foot.

3. With your hands grasping the leg at the thigh, one right above the other, stroke down from hip to foot with both hands rotating in opposite directions, as if you were wringing a towel.

4. On the sole of the foot, use a thumb-over-thumb motion to massage from heel to toes.

5. Use your whole hand to stroke the bottom of the foot from heel to toes.

6. Stroke the top of the foot. Gently squeeze and pull each toe.

7. Massage around the ankle using small circles.

8. Roll the leg between your hands, as if you're rolling dough.

General Tips for Baby Massage

Implementing infant massage into your parenting routine doesn't have to be difficult, but there are some general guidelines you should follow to maximize your efforts—and keep your baby safe and happy. Here are some tips to keep in mind when getting started with baby massage:

  • Avoid massaging your baby immediately following a feeding. Wait at least 45 minutes, or until your baby is calm and alert—likely before bedtime or after a diaper change.
  • Make strokes gentle but firm, and not ticklish.
  • Build massage into your baby's daily schedule.
  • Follow your baby's signals about when to stop. A massage can last 10 minutes or 30 minutes, depending on their mood. Crying, squirming, or falling asleep are signs that your baby isn't feeling the massage.
  • Consult your doctor before using any massage oils, and avoid any with harsh ingredients.
  • Remember to relax and don't worry too much about your technique. Speak softly, sing, or hum to your baby, and smile to teach them that this is a fun, loving activity you can share.
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