The Benefits of Baby Massage

Massage might get your newborn to sleep better, improve their health, and even help you bond.

You know what happens: The minute you put your baby down, they cry. Pick them up and, presto—they're serene and smiley again. If just holding your baby can be so soothing, imagine how they might benefit from a full-body massage. In fact, studies have shown that baby massage can reduce crying and fussiness, support more restful sleep, and alleviate common wail-inducers like constipation and colic.

Read on to learn about the benefits of baby massage and how to incorporate massage into your baby care routine.

The Benefits of Infant Massage

Research has shown that massaging an infant can have many benefits, including:

  • Reducing pain
  • Increasing weight gain
  • Improving jaundice
  • Reducing the length of neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) stay
  • Experiencing a stronger attachment to their caregiver

As a result, your baby may cry less, be less fussy or colicky, and sleep better. The bonding experience can also benefit a parent's overall mental health.

When you give your baby a massage, you're actually stimulating their central nervous system, explains Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. That sets off a chain reaction, says Dr. Field, making their brain produce more serotonin (a feel-good chemical) and less cortisol (a hormone secreted in response to stress). As a result, your baby's heart rate and breathing slow down, and they become more relaxed.

Giving your infant regular massages is good for their 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, Ph.D., 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 them a gentle rubdown can help you feel more in control, explains Elaine Fogel Schneider, Ph.D., author of Massaging Your Baby: The Joy of Touch Time. In addition, it will help you learn how to read your baby's signals and respond better to their unique needs.

Baby Massage Tips

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 them and make them 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 their diaper, and then lay them facing up on a soft towel or blanket. Begin by holding your baby's hands and gently rubbing their palms with your thumbs a few times. When your baby seems tuned in to you, try the following soothing techniques.

How to Do a Baby Massage

Dr. Schneider suggests starting the massage with your baby's legs and working your way up their 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. Then, in a clockwise motion, rub your fingertips firmly and gently over their tummy in a circular motion. Repeat.

Arm massage

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

Neck massage

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

Colic and gas relief massage

First, give your baby a belly massage. Then bend their knees up to their 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.

The Benefits of Skin-to-Skin Contact

Skin-to-skin, while technically not a form of massage, is another way to connect with and calm your baby through body contact. It is good for all babies, but it's especially helpful for premature infants. That's why most NICUs encourage "kangaroo care," where a parent places their preemie on their bare chest, holding them tummy-to-tummy.

According to UNICEF's Baby Friendly Initiative, skin-to-skin offers the following benefits:

  • Calms and relaxes baby and parent
  • Regulates a baby's heart rate and breathing
  • Stimulates digestion and feeding
  • Helps colonize a baby's skin with a parent's healthy bacteria
  • Stimulates the release of breastfeeding and bonding hormones
  • Helps with growth
  • May reduce hospital stays in premature infants
  • Improves breast milk production

This kind of contact relaxes a preterm infant and can help them grow, says Susan Ludington, Ph.D., a professor of pediatric nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who has studied kangaroo care extensively.

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.

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 didn't receive skin-to-skin.

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