Massage is a hugely meaningful way to connect with your baby, and as Malcolm Aitken explains, it helps baby make some vital connections of her own.
Touch has a special place in all relationships and massage especially has a powerful and unique ability to make a baby or young child feel loved and cherished. The connection you have with your little one is nourished through massage and everyone benefits from the relaxation it brings. Being a tiny person in a big world has its stresses and you yourself may also feel at least a temporary reprieve from the pressures of your day after slowing down to spend some focused time on massaging your baby.
Another, perhaps lesser known, aspect of massage is the way it primes a baby’s mind for other neural stimulation. For this reason it’s great to play with your baby for a while after a massage. You could blow some bubbles for baby to watch (great for visual development), tap along to a beat on some pots and pans (rhythm is linked with mathematical learning), or move baby’s arms and legs in time to some music. By all means, play some music on your device but don’t be too shy to sing along. You’re giving something of yourself when you sing and baby (on a very basic level) will appreciate this. The vibrations of the sounds you make will soothe and comfort baby as she soaks up your loving tones. She’ll even start to join in as the months go by.
From top to toe
Before you massage your baby it’s best you talk to your little one as you get them ready and tell them what’s coming next (eg “Daddy is going to give you a massage now”). This builds the routine nature of the experience, which young children love.
While older babies can be massaged when lying on their backs, it’s best to massage younger babies (until they are about six months old) while they lie on their tummies. Massage in this position will enhance a young baby’s experience of tummy time. In those early months, tummy time is so important for both baby’s physical and neurological development. It’s a vital prerequisite for ‘commando’ crawling and later the classic hands-and- knees crawling. The sequential nature of development is very important in young children. Development milestone X needs to be properly met before milestone Y can successfully be achieved.
Using slightly different types of stimulus during the same massage can be really good for a baby’s developing nervous system. For example, you can roll a ball on baby’s skin to massage them and then tap the same ball down their body. You can sing little songs such as “This is the way we roll the ball, roll the ball, roll the ball” and “This is the way we tap the ball…” which gives the experience another dimension and provides baby with even more stimulation. One fun tune I’ve sung a lot with my babies is “This is the way we chop the meat, chop the meat, chop the meat” (while moving ‘chopping’ hands down their back). Then it’s on to “This is the way we roll the bread” with hands balled up. You can wipe across baby’s back – “This is the way we wipe the glass”, and so it goes on.
Another way of changing the type of tactile stimulation baby gets is by changing the massage object (not just using your hands). Contrasts are good. For instance, you could try gently massaging your baby with a rough fabric (like a dry flannel), and then with a very smooth stone.
Make sure you massage the nerve centres spread around your baby’s body. There are clusters of nerves behind the knee, on the soles of the feet and in the centre of their tummies, for example. Continue your massage technique (rolling the ball or whatever you’re using) right to the end of each limb. Get between baby’s toes if you can. This all helps baby sense the fact that their toes might not be just one amorphous mass and provides a greater awareness of their body.
As previously mentioned, you can use the time you set aside to massage baby to add in some activities that foster baby’s neurological and physiological growth. For example, a vital precursor to developing your little one’s fine motor skills is developing their gross motor skills, eg. their upper arm strength. You can let baby hang, at a low height, from your hands once they are old – and brave – enough. Tummy time encourages baby to use and strengthen the muscles needed to push themselves up. From about six months old, babies are mastering mini push-ups; holding their head up and propping up on their elbows. From about nine months old, babies can graduate from push-ups to wheelbarrows, which are wonderful fun. Try wheelbarrows by holding your baby’s legs while they try to move along on their hands. Both you and baby may find this hard at first, but keep at it. The sense of achievement I’ve seen radiating from babies’ faces when they do their first wheelbarrow is priceless.
The vestibular system is basically just the technical term for your inner ear. Turning baby’s head stimulates this system and the benefits are huge. Simply holding baby in your arms while you slowly turn around on the spot to a recorded song (or your beautiful singing!), a few times a week, is a great exercise for baby’s spatial awareness, balance, sense of rhythm, sensory integration (baby’s senses and brain working together optimally) and even baby’s emotional well being. Just make sure to turn around in both directions and stop if you get dizzy!
Time to relax
It doesn’t really matter what time of day you massage your baby, but building it into your routine at roughly the same time is optimal. Aim for a time when your baby is between feeds and not too tired, perhaps at a stage of the day when baby would normally be having some play time. Many people choose to build massage into their baby’s evening routine – bath, massage, get dressed for bed. A massage is obviously a lovely and relaxing way to prepare for sleep, but evenings can be very busy for young families, so start bath time early enough to allow for massage in an unhurried manner.
Baby can be without clothing for a massage or you could dress them lightly (in perhaps a nappy and singlet) so you can still get to the nerve clusters but keep baby warm at the same time. Massage oil is not essential but an oil or lotion formulated for babies will help your hands glide comfortably over your baby’s skin. About 15 minutes of massage is probably enough in one sitting. Providing massage and the activities described in this article once or twice a week will noticeably help both your baby’s development as well as your bond with your child. Research strongly suggests that engaging in massage and these related activities three or more times a week will help your precious child immensely in terms of their emotional, intellectual and physical well being. Physical touch is a powerful communication tool after all, and hands up who’d love more massage in their world!
Malcolm Aitken is a freelance journalist who, until recently, ran preschool neurological development classes for children under five.