Giving your infant or older child regular massages has been proven to benefit the emotional wellbeing of everyone involved. Massages stimulate and increase the release of oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in relaxation, happiness, and social bonding. When you massage your child, not only does your child produce oxytocin, but you, as the massager, and anyone watching (other caregivers) produce it too. In this way, massages can be a very effective way to promote social bonding with your family.
Side note: oxytocin also decreases the effects and length of postnatal depression!
Another benefit of baby massage, as a form of skin-to-skin contact, is the health effects to the baby. Skin‑to-skin contact (also known as kangaroo care) is a widely practiced care technique where the caregiver places their naked baby on their bare chest, increasing the surface area of bare skin contact. This form of contact has been shown to have remarkable benefits to new babies, particularly premature babies, as the effects help the newborn to gain weight while reducing infections and breathing problems.
Side note: baby massage is a fantastic way for dads to get skin-to-skin contact, particularly if the baby is breastfed!
If that wasn’t enough, baby massage has also been shown to reduce fussiness in babies and increase the length of time they sleep for. Massage improves the parts of the nervous system that regulates organs, such as the heart. A steadier heartrate improves calmer responses to stress and a healthier sleep.
Massaging Your Baby
The Best Time to Start
When choosing when to give your baby a massage, it’s best to think about their usual feeding and sleeping routines. Try to choose a time that is between feeds and naps so they won’t be too tired, too hungry, or too full. Babies don’t have a lot of variety going on in their lives but their schedules always seem to be jam-packed. I always found that the massage fit in just perfectly before the time when they normally sleep the longest (usually around 9 pm for my newborns and 8 pm for my babies).
Also, if you haven’t already developed a bedtime routine for your young one (or older one), try introducing baby massage into the mix. In this way, you are providing a relaxing environment for them to start drifting off without allowing them to fall asleep in your arms, increasing their ability to self-soothe.
What You’ll Need
Be sure to have a soft, open surface ready, like your bed or sofa. Remember not to walk away from your baby on these high surfaces. If you think you will need to walk away for any moment, choose a carpet on the floor or bring your baby with you.
Use an oil or lotion that is developed for babies. Lotions with perfumes or sodium lauryl sulphate (a harsh detergent) can be irritating to the skin. I choose coconut oil every time because it has additional health benefits such as natural antibacterial and antifungal properties. Lauric acid, a fatty chain acid which makes up 85% of what’s in coconut oil, has antibacterial properties. The only other natural substance high in lauric acid is breastmilk.
Additionally, have all of your diapering needs and clothing/pajamas ready. As a massage is very relaxing, your baby may want to jump right into bed afterwards.
Side note: I also like to have the lights low and play gentle baby or yoga music to increase the calmness in the space. My favourite song to play for baby massage time is Mother Divine by Craig Pruess and Ananda.
Where to Start
If your child is new to massages, it is recommended that you start with their legs as they are used to having them touched during diaper changes. Warm up the lotion or oil between your hands and work your way up his or her legs in gentle movements with your fingertips or with light squeezes on the calves or thighs.
Once massaging the chest or tummy, gently place both hands flat on his or her stomach and make large clockwise movements. Be careful not to go counter-clockwise as this is moving against his or her normal digestion movements. Our large intestines start on the bottom right of our bodies, move up, left, and down. By going clockwise during a massage, you will be promoting healthy digestion.
When massaging their chest or back, place your hands flat again but in the centre of the body and move outwards, as if you are flattening the pages of a book.
Move onwards to their arms and gently squeeze their shoulders down to their hands. If doing massages other than gentle squeezes on the arms or legs (such as strokes), be certain to move upwards (from their hands to their shoulders or from their feet to their thighs). This promotes circulation as blood returning to the heart isn’t impeded by your massage.
Continue with the massage as long as your child appears to be enjoying it. Remember, crying is the only way young babies can communicate with others so if they appear to be fussy or start to cry, it may not mean they don’t enjoy massages, it may just be time to go to bed or eat.
Massages for Older Children
As your child ages, as mine have, you may choose to keep baby massage in your lives. We incorporate them in our bath time routine. Our baths are not every day (to prevent drying out the skin), so our massages aren’t every day, but they do still enjoy them. And now that they are older, they can tell me where they prefer to be massaged too!
Side note: one other very special benefit of baby massage in our lives is that massages have somehow made it into our moments of apologies. When one of my children acts out, they apologize and either ask for or try to give a massage. I believe this to be a wonderful part of their personalities that has been instilled in them since sharing these social moments with me at a very young age.
Please browse the following pages to learn more about baby massages and the health benefits of coconut oil:
Please also feel free to visit KARA’s Grow With Me Program to discuss baby massage!