Imagine for a moment the soothing, smoothing effect of a good massage, the kind that banishes troubles of every magnitude. Then imagine that feeling of well-being as it eases the tight limbs and aching tummy of a colicky baby, and it's simple to see why infant massage is quickly gaining popularity among parents.
Every baby needs kneading, said Maria Mathias, a Moline, Ill., masseuse and teacher who travels internationally to train health workers and massage professionals in baby massage. "The physical benefits are obvious," Mathias said. "You're helping the body's various systems--muscular, respiratory, circulatory--to work better. You're improving gas and colic, helping the baby sleep better, relaxing tension throughout the body.
"But most of what's written about infant massage focuses on the babies with problems: premature babies, babies with colic. I'm afraid people miss the value that massage has for every baby."
Families Brought Together
Its greatest benefit may lie in bringing parent and baby together.
"Parents can massage their babies better than anyone else, because they're psychically connected to their own babies," Mathias said. "It's particularly good for fathers to learn, because it gives them something special they can do for the baby. Fathers often feel excluded just after the baby's birth, so this can really help in the family's bonding."
To some extent, infant massage is a codification of what comes naturally. Before a baby is born, the mother instinctively rubs and pats the fetus in her uterus; later, she becomes an old hand at holding, cuddling and stroking. Learning the techniques of infant massage may simply be a more efficient route for acquiring these crucial, high-contact skills.
That's great for nervous, first-time parents, who "gain confidence as they really get to know the baby's body," Mathias said. "This helps parents learn about the baby in a different way, in addition to all the other things they're discovering."
Some practiced parents even help an older child welcome the new baby by teaching a few simple massage moves that the youngster can apply with pride.
Learning infant massage is mostly a matter of finding a qualified teacher (there are approximately 300 certified U.S. instructors). Within several sessions, before or soon after the baby's birth, parents learn to perform the gentle blend of Swedish and East Indian techniques developed for Americans by Colorado teacher Vimala Schneider.
Doll Used for Practice
In class, expectant parents practice on a doll. Post-natal parents bring the baby and learn by doing. Classes even include a selection of appropriate lullabyes to croon and recommendations for the best oils to use.
During the training workshop she gives annually at the Chicago School of Massage Therapy, Mathias showed a class of massage professionals how to work with several parents and their babies, none of whom had ever been massaged. Like almost everything involving babies, the class didn't proceed precisely as planned.
One otherwise serene baby insisted on staying on his back after being turned over repeatedly. "When the baby isn't cooperating, you massage whatever is up," Mathias said. "Their tummies, for example, are very sensitive, so they may resist by squirming or crying."
A couple of other babies fussed persistently, quieting only when their mothers quit massaging to nurse.
'Respect Your Baby'
"One thing this teaches is to respect your baby," Mathias noted. "A baby will grab your hand and move it if he doesn't want you doing what you're doing."
At first, a baby may tolerate just a few minutes of the full 20-minute massage. Once a baby is accustomed to the routine of a massage, fussing usually gives way to relaxation.
Mathias pointed out massage moves that are particularly helpful for various conditions. For a premature baby, especially one who is hospitalized, simple touching and stroking promote growth and development as well as counteracting the stress of constant prodding.
"It teaches the baby to associate touching with more pleasant connotations," she said.
Once any infant is home, working gently on the baby's tummy may help expel the gas of colic. Teething pain can be soothed by stroking the face. The labored breathing of a baby with a cold can improve when the chest is massaged.
"Massage is a communication beyond words," Mathias said. "It teaches the baby that you can trust. It makes the baby see the world as a safer, perhaps a softer place. Most children think they're loved, but they don't necessarily feel it. Massage--with eye contact, with a total focus on the baby, with the sensation of touch--makes the baby feel loved."
'Parents Get More Sleep'
Practically speaking, she said, "The benefits to parents are also benefits to the child: a more balanced child, a calmer baby with more focused attention, in general an easier time with the baby.
"And, not least, the parents get more sleep," she added with a grin.
It's possible to learn infant massage from one of the books now available, including Schneider's "Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents" (Bantam Books, $5.95), which has step-by-step photos as well as games, songs and tips for continuing the massage routine with older children.
Mathias said, however, that the best training is in person. Parents who want to learn infant massage can obtain a referral from the International Association of Infant Massage Instructors, P.O. Box 16103, Portland, Oregon 97216.