Bonding with your baby through massage - the critical importance of vitamin T (for touch!)
Kissing, tickling, blowing raspberries.... how can you resist that delicious baby fine skin or the precious giggles and chuckles as your little one responds to your loving touch?
Vitamin T – for touch, that is – is just as important a nutrient for your baby as the nutrition in the food he eats: touch is the first sense to develop, just days after conception and it is important to maintain health and well-being for a whole lifetime.
The benefits of loving touch
Although it is difficult to measure the effects of spontaneous touch between parents and babies such as all of the smooching, tickling and blowing of raspberries on tiny tummies, there are a number of studies into early skin to skin contact and baby massage showing amazing benefits for babies. The best news is that you don't need to buy expensive equipment or make radical changes to your daily workload.
Skin-to-skin contact between you and you baby at birth has been shown to reduce crying, to encourage mother-baby interaction and it keeps your baby warmer as his body temperature becomes stabilised by your own body. It also makes breastfeeding easier as your baby is programmed to seek the breast naturally and this close contact will stimulate the release of oxytocin, the hormone that makes your breast milk flow. If you miss skin to skin cuddles or are separated from your baby immediately after birth, studies of premature babies show that cuddling your little one skin to skin as soon as possible will still have profound effects on bonding, attachment, breastfeeding and your baby's development.
Of course skin to skin contact is good for baby and you beyond those few precious hours after birth and taking a little time each day to introduce baby massage can be a wonderful time of sharing for either parent. Massaging your baby stimulates all of your little one's senses through skin contact, eye contact and your familiar smell as well as hearing your voice and experiencing a focussed response. This loving interaction and sensory experience is hardwiring your baby's immature brain for emotional and neurological development: as you touch and talk to your little one and share eye contact, you stimulate the development of connections between nerve cells in your baby's brain that will form foundations for thinking, feeling and learning.
There is good news for tired parents too: a few simple strokes can lull your baby into a deeper, more restful sleep. According to Dr Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the Miami University School of Medicine, "a massage just before bedtime is more effective than rocking to help your baby fall asleep and stay asleep." Dr Field's studies are affirmed by researchers from Warwick Medical School in the UK who looked at nine studies of massage covering a total of 598 infants aged less than six months. These studies showed that babies who were massaged cried less, slept better, and had lower levels of stress hormones compared to infants who did not receive massage. One of the studies also claimed that massage could affect the release of the hormone melatonin which is important in aiding infants' sleeping patterns
At first just gently stroking your baby's legs and back is a lovely way to connect. It's easy too if you have clothing that allows easy access such as nighties or two piece suits, rather than always buttoning your baby from top to toe in one piece suits.
As you introduce more formal massage it is important to choose a time of day that suits you and your baby so you can feel relaxed and your baby is receptive. Your aim is to help your baby develop an association that massage is relaxing and calming. If you introduce a little at a time (you may start with just a leg massage, adding extra strokes gradually over a period of several days or weeks, depending on your baby's age), with respect to your baby's cues and tolerance, you will have a valuable tool in your parenting kit that can be used later to help him calm down when he is unsettled.
The best time to introduce massage will often be about twenty minutes or so after a feed when your baby is calm and alert. During the first three months your baby will probably find a massage AND a bath too stimulating so it's best to massage and bath at separate times or massage one day and bath your baby the next day. If you move the two activities together, try massaging before your baby's bath so he doesn't get cold.
Always watch your baby closely to check how he is responding – which strokes does he enjoy? Which body parts are most comfortable for him to have massaged? Are there any spots that seem uncomfortable? Some babies who have had painful procedures such as heel pricks for instance, may grimace as you touch their feet. If this happens, just hold that tiny foot in your hand and talk to your baby, "you are safe now, Mummy will hold your foot if it's scary and soon you will be able to let me rub your foot again." If your baby becomes restless or unsettled, it is better to stop massaging than to push him along and create extra stress.
Remember too that massage can make your baby feel thirsty, so whenever he was last fed, if you massage, offer a top up afterwards. A massage, a bath and then a feed make a lovely bed time routine when your baby can manage this.
Do you have time to massage?
It can be daunting to think you have to fit another activity into your already busy day, just because it is good for your baby. Relax! You don't have to set aside an hour to light candles and play gentle music to give your baby a 'spa experience'. Of course, if you want to do this it is a lovely way to help you both relax and bond but massage and 'touchy feely' games ('round and round the garden' or 'this little piggy') can be easily incorporated into the busiest days, even if you have several littlies.
You can give your baby a leg and foot massage in just a few minutes as you change his nappy or a gentle back rub after a feed – rub him skin to skin rather than 'burping' him through his clothing. A tummy massage and a few leg bends will release lower bowel gas or help your baby poo so this can actually save you time if he is uncomfortable (alternate clockwise tummy circles with bending his legs up to his chest or 'march' them as you sing 'the Grand old Duke of York').
If you have more than one child, you can include your older tots in helping massage the baby or perhaps your toddler could massage a doll while you massage baby, then you could massage him. Or massage could become a family ritual with each parent massaging a little one. The aim here is that one day your little ones will return the favour and give you a lovely back or foot rub!
To learn how to massage your baby, see Pinky's Baby Massage DVD