Can't keep your hands off your newborn? We know. Those tiny toes and chubby thighs are absolutely impossible to resist. Fortunately, there's no need to. Your infant loves to be caressed. "The skin has more than 5 million sensory receptors," says Elaine Fogel Schneider, Ph.D., author of Massaging Your Baby: The Joy of TouchTime.
Lots of good things happen when you give a baby a massage. A 2009 Cochrane Review of studies found that infants who have their skin stroked regularly cry and fuss less than those who don't, perhaps because the skin-to-skin contact lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They also sleep better, thanks to the touch-induced release of the hormone melatonin. Massage has even been shown to bolster a little one's immune system, motor skills, and intellectual development, and to promote healthy weight gain. Although giving a massage is largely instinctual, we'll guide you through some basic techniques to make sure that you and your child get the most from this special bonding opportunity.
Time it right. Your baby should be in a quiet yet alert state. Try after bathtime.
Get comfy. Sit on the floor in a warm room with few distractions and place your baby on a blanket.
Start low, finish high. Babies are used to having their legs touched during diaper changes, so begin there and work your way up.
Wait for his cue. Make your baby part of the process by asking if he's ready for a massage. He can't answer, of course, but an infant who's looking at you, smiling, or reaching out is ready to interact, says Diana Moore, founder of the International Loving Touch Foundation, which holds certified massage-training classes.
Use lubrication. A study published in Infant Behavior and Development showed that using oil rather than your bare hands helps your child enjoy the massage more. "Choose a natural, edible oil like almond, sunflower, or coconut, and avoid anything scented," says Linda Storm, executive director of Infant Massage USA, which provides instruction and training for educators and parents.
Begin with your baby lying on her back. Cup her heel in one hand, and use the other to stroke her softly from the outside of her thigh down to her foot (this stimulates circulation and helps relax muscle tone). Continue from the inside of her thigh and work your way down to the ankle. Repeat each stroke several times. Then cradle her foot in both hands, and alternate pressing your thumbs one at a time from heel to toes. Gently roll each toe. Repeat these strokes on the other leg.
Stroke your baby's belly in a clockwise motion to help move gas and food out of his intestines. Draw the letter I on his left side by gliding your fingers from just below his ribs down to his hip. Form an upside-down L (for "love") by stroking your fingers from his right to left side below his ribs and down to his left hip. Create an upside-down U by starting at his right hip, moving your fingers up the right side, crossing them underneath his rib cage, and then moving down to his left hip.
Hold your baby's wrist in one hand. Softly wrap your other one around the top of her arm, and glide it from her shoulder to her wrist. Reverse the stroke, and repeat it several times. Press your thumbs one at a time up her palm. Then gently roll each finger. Hold her wrist and stroke from her wrist up to her shoulder. Change hands and glide along the inside of her arm from wrist to shoulder. Switch to the opposite arm.
Wipe any residual oil off your hands. With the pads of your fingers; make small circles on his cheeks. Place an index finger at the inside corner of each eye. Gently glide across his upper cheeks. Start above the middle of his lip and stroke outward several times, following the lip line. Start above the chin and do the same thing. Then, using your fingertips, stroke the front, top, and back of each ear.
Turn your baby onto her tummy. Draw small circles with your fingers down one side of her back to her buttocks and back up the other side. Avoid stroking her spine. Next, lay both hands on her upper back, thumbs meeting. Glide them back and forth as you stroke from her shoulders down to her bottom and then back up.
Kangaroo care, in which a mom places her baby on her bare chest, is a big part of preemie therapy. The skin-to-skin contact helps regulate a newborn's breathing and heart rate, reduces stress, and promotes weight gain. But full-term babies can also benefit from this technique. A study published in The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing found that infants who were struggling with breastfeeding became more adept at nursing after an hour of kangaroo care. Beyond this, it's a wonderful way to feel closer to your child. Follow these steps to do it correctly.
Sit upright in a rocker or a glider. This is the safest position -- if you fall asleep, you won't roll on top of your baby.
Position her head against your heart. By hearing your breathing pattern and heartbeat, he'll instinctively adjust his.
Cover her with a blanket or your shirt. This will help to minimize outside distractions.
Take it slow. Preemies require up to three hours of daily kangaroo care. Full-term rules are more flexible: Snuggle for as long as you're both enjoying it.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Parents magazine.