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Celia Shatzman
Contributing Writer

Baby Massage Basics

Baby massage isn’t just a great way for you and your infant to bond—it’s also beneficial to your little one’s mental and physical health

Think of all the reasons you enjoy getting a massage: It’s relaxing, soothing and sometimes stimulating. The perks of baby massage are similar, but also include so much more. “Massage for babies differs from massage in the adult world in that the primary focus of the massage session is not working out the knots, but rather eliciting a relaxation response in the baby,” says Kristy Ruiz, LMT, MLD/C, a massage therapist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “We use touch to communicate safety and comfort. For caregivers, baby massage becomes a way to build trust and bond with their infant. One of the greatest things about massaging your baby is knowing that when your baby feels calm and relaxed, it’s allowing her little body to use that extra energy on important growing tasks such as brain development and digestion.” Ready to give baby a rubdown? Here’s everything you need to know to be a baby massage master.

In this article:
What is baby massage?
Benefits of infant massage
How to massage baby

What Is Baby Massage?

It’s exactly as it sounds: a parent massaging baby, whether on the abdomen, face, neck, back or belly. “Baby massage or infant massage is a way for parents to bond with their newborns and help stimulate growth and development through gentle touch,” says Jakki Bosco, licensed massage therapist and owner of Tampa Massage Clinic, which specializes in adult and pediatric massage.

If you’re wondering what age to start baby massage, it’s fine to begin right after birth, as soon as baby is medically cleared to be handled—and the sooner, the better. “The best time to start infant massage is within the first three months, as babies begin to develop important physical and intellectual abilities, including motor skills,” Bosco says. “The infant massage techniques will be very light and gentle.” The goal is to get baby comfortable and familiar with your touch.

Benefits of Infant Massage

The health benefits of infant massage are many. Babies who grow up feeling wanted and loved, with a healthy ability to give and receive touch, are better able to grow up happy,” says Rebecca Millhouse, CMT, NMT, CIMI.

Baby massage also deepens the bond between baby and parent, and that in itself can create benefits, thanks to the touch factor and eye contact, says S. Daniel Ganjian, MD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. That said, it’s especially important for fathers to massage baby; it puts him on an even keel with mom, who typically spends more time with baby because she’s the one nursing him. ”It can take seven to eight months for fathers to become enthralled with their little one, but when they start massage from birth, they develop that bond much earlier,” Ganjian explains. This, in turn, makes it easier for Dad to handle the challenges that typically come with raising a child.

Touchy-feely benefits aside, baby massage also brings about real physical advantages. Among them:

Reduced gas in colicky infants. An abdominal massage (see below) can aid digestion and help baby move the contents of the intestines along their journey through the colon, Millhouse says.

Improved muscle tone and range. By moving and circulating baby’s muscles, you’re preventing atrophy and helping her develop strength and motor skills, Bosco says.

Brain development. When you massage baby, you’re increasing her awareness of the body’s position and movement, Bosco says. This allows the body to become more physically integrated.

Improved focus and eye contact. With bonding and regular massage, baby gets to practice eye contact. What’s more, maintaining eye contact while massaging an overstimulated baby helps him stay present in the moment, Bosco says.

Enhanced neuromuscular connections. “Infants have to learn about all their different body parts and how to control them,” Millhouse says. With infant massage, baby becomes more aware of sensory connections and where she is in space. That, in turn, affects how she moves.

Healthier immune system. Believe it or not, baby massage can help cut down on colds. “Massage increases our white blood cell count, thus improving immune response,” Bosco says. It also assists in lymphatic flow, which can help fight off infections.

Improved mood. There’s a good reason your little one is smiling after a baby massage: Endorphins—you know, those happy hormones—are released in response to therapeutic touch, Millhouse says. At the same time, the stress hormone cortisol is reduced. “The fight-or-flight response shuts off and the relaxation response is stimulated,” Millhouse explains. “A stressed infant who wasn’t gaining weight may begin to thrive and put on ounces and pounds.”

Better sleep. “Bedtime is a popular choice because massage is so relaxing,” Millhouse says. Over time, babies begin to anticipate scheduled activities, which can lead to an understanding that first comes bath, then story, then massage, then nursing/bottle, then bed.

How to Massage a Baby

There are many baby massage techniques, depending on your area of focus (improving baby’s sleep, digestion, etc.), and the best way to learn them is to consult your pediatrician or take a course at a local hospital or birthing center. When it come to baby massage, practice makes perfect and new parents will soon get the hang of it—and only they, or other loved ones, should be doing it. “There is so much bonding and connectivity involved,” Bosco says. “As an infant massage therapist, it’s not my responsibility to massage the baby but instead to teach the parents how to perform the massages. I’m the support system for the parent. I wouldn’t let anyone massage my baby other than our loved ones.”

Aim for a daily baby massage, but if that’s not doable, try for at least three times a week. “A baby massage shouldn’t last longer than 15 minutes or so,” Millhouse says. “Infants and children can't handle as much stimulation as adults and need shorter sessions.”

How much pressure is too much?

Worried you might hurt baby with a heavy hand? You can always ask your pediatrician or a baby massage professional to show you the right amount of pressure to apply. “Compared to adult massages, infant massages are extremely gentle,” Bosco says. “Infants are very delicate and sensitive, so the massage techniques are about very gentle touching, stroking, stretching and loving. For massage pressure, I like for parents to imagine massaging a cotton ball.” Since baby’s physical structure is fragile, a super-light massage is all that’s needed to be effective.

Should you use oils for an infant massage?

It’s perfectly fine to use a baby massage oil to help your fingers glide on baby’s skin more easily. If you’re wondering: “Is olive oil good for baby massage?”, you’re in luck! Ganjian believes pure olive oil is actually the best oil for the job. “There aren’t any additional ingredients, additives or preservatives in it, so you don’t have to worry about sensitivity to allergens,” he says. “It penetrates the skin and gets it moist.” And if baby sticks an oily fist in his mouth, he’s consuming something entirely edible! You can also use other simple food-grade oils such as grapeseed, sunflower and safflower, as well as a hypoallergenic cream or baby oil. “To minimize mess, purchase a small sprayer for dispensing the oil,” Ruiz suggests. You’ll want to avoid any heavily scented products for little ones, especially essential oils. “Some have been shown to cause side effects with babies,” Ganjian warns. Of course, use caution when rubbing baby’s face—you want to avoid getting oil in her eyes, nose and mouth.

Effective ways of massaging baby

Now that you know all the general rules of baby massage, here are some techniques to try on your little one.

For a full-body massage: Move from head to toe and work your way down baby’s body, Ganjian says. Start by massaging the forehead, eyebrows, cheeks, lips, chin, ears and back of scalp, then go up and down the front and back of neck, upper back, shoulders, breast and stomach area, followed by the arms, lower back, hips, butt, legs and feet. Don’t forget those toes!

To help develop motor skills: “Parents can touch baby’s left hand to her right foot and vice versa,” Bosco says.

For improved digestion: Lightly stroke the tummy in a circular motion. “Clockwise strokes will help alleviate constipation, whereas counterclockwise strokes will help with diarrhea,” Bosco says. “These directions follow the natural path of the intestinal tract in the human body.” Parents should initially begin by stroking the side areas of the stomach, not directly on top because it’s such a sensitive area. Once baby is comfortable, you can begin working the whole belly. Avoid the umbilical cord stump to prevent yanking. “Pay attention to what you’re feeling and how baby is reacting,” Bosco says. “Get to know baby’s body. Familiarity is not only for the baby to learn but also for parents.”

For better sleep: Massage the front and back of the ears. This activates the vagus nerve, which causes the body to relax.”

To relax or perk up baby: Parents can bring on a state of relaxedness, such as when preparing for sleep, by gently running their fingers down the baby’s arms and legs, in the direction away from the heart. Softly massage the muscles toward the heart to bring on wakefulness or increased energy.

For range-of-motion (ROM) movements: Make circles with baby’s arms and legs, as well as bring them together and apart,” Bosco says. “This helps improve motor skills and increase blood flow to muscles, ultimately strengthening baby.”

Updated December 2017

PHOTO: Lea Csontos