Written by Liza Arnold, LMT
Soothing a crying infant can be as challenging as solving a Rubix cube. Techniques like patting an infant on the back to assist with burping or singing a calming song are commonly known. What isn’t normally acknowledged is that these are both examples of body manipulation. Patting an infant’s back assists with moving gases to where they can be released, and singing can activate the infant’s parasympathetic nervous system and help them calm down.
A more obvious form of body manipulation is growing in popularity: infant massage. A study performed by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 2004 determined that high-risk infants benefitted from massage with “improved daily weight gain by 5.1g” and “reduce[d] length of stay by 4.5 days.” The infants in this study were born preterm or had low birth-weights. Developmental struggles aside, some of the stress factors these infants faced were constant exposure to light while in the hospital and disrupted time spent in the womb, reducing the amount of tactile stimulation a developing infant would normally have had. While the study cited obvious benefits to massage that stemmed from providing relaxation and tactile stimulation to these infants, the author noted that “consideration should be given as to whether this is a cost-effective use of time” by medical personnel. In these circumstances, it is highly worthwhile for the parents of high-risk infants to learn these particular techniques themselves.
Another study performed by the Cochrane Developmental, Psychosocial and Learning Problems Group in 2013 “provides some evidence suggestive of improved mother-infant interaction, sleep and relaxation, reduced crying and a beneficial impact on the number of hormones controlling stress” in healthy infants. Massage not only reaps benefits for infants at obvious risk, it makes development easier and less stressful on healthy infants and their parents.
As infants grow into children, they can benefit from massage in developmental ways. Numerous studies on adults have shown that massage can help with anxiety and stress levels. This can apply to children as well: this can lead to better sleep, assistance with digestion and elimination, improved behavioral patterns and body awareness. Any parent can relate to the challenges of sleep training! Now imagine how much easier it could be if you could help your child relax with a soothing massage. Introducing your child to massage can also lead into conversations about body autonomy and boundaries, especially when you ask your child where they would like to receive massage and what kind they would like.
It may seem like a strange concept in our culture to “pamper” our children with massage, but the benefits for both parents and children are worth the effort. It not only creates a more developmentally friendly environment for your child, it can make things easier for exhausted parents. Speaking from my own experience, gentle petrissage to my son’s head and light compressions around his sacrum were effective in helping him sleep at night as an infant. He first slept through the night, when he was just two months old. I do not yet have another child for comparison, but this is considered an early time for an infant to sleep through the night. I also was able to help relieve the occasional stomach ache with clockwise belly rubs and gentle circles. I credit the time and effort I put into learning and practicing these techniques. Today he is four years old and well aware of bodily boundaries, and mostly lets me do cranial and foot work at night before he sleeps. While every child is unique and may respond differently to massage, it is a skill that will only do good when practiced appropriately.