“A newborn baby instinctively responds to touch, and massage is a wonderful way to strengthen and enhance natural bonding between mother and child,” says professional massage therapist Annabella Coetzee.
Massage is an art in its application and can vary from simple strokes of basic massage with an untrained hand, to a more sophisticated and studied form of therapeutic intervention. However, the basic principles remain the same.
Coetzee has trained several students – preparing them to use their wonderful gift of human touch so that they are able to transfer their warmth, nurturing and healing care to another person.
All babies have a natural sensitivity to being caressed and cuddled and a gentle message will help to relax and sooth your baby. While there isn’t a fixed sequence for massaging a baby, it helps to generally keep the movements gentle and flowing, advices Coetzee. She suggests messaging your baby after their daily bath or when discomfort prevails.
Coetzee has devised a step-by-step massage guide for parents. “The steps should be repeated three to four times — which could take about half an hour maximum when you have progressed to reach your full proficiency. As you progress, you can add-on more steps and movements,” she says.
How it helps baby
The simple action of gently stroking a baby will strengthen natural bonding, sooth and reassure your baby. Through the centuries, massage has been used to calm babies with colic, wind and digestive problems.
To prepare to start your baby massage, gather a light vegetable oil or any oil that is easily absorbed such as almond, sunflower or olive oil. But take care to avoid the eyes.
Gently lay baby on his back on a soft and warm towel placed on a stable surface. This enables you to use both your hands to support and stroke your baby. Pour about 5ml or one teaspoon of sweet almond oil into a small dish. Make sure your hands are warm and the room is warm, quiet and well-ventilated.
Start by working on the baby’s front. Smooth a little oil all over the baby’s body, shoulders to feet, avoiding the face.Lightly stroke upwards towards the chest and abdomen with both your full flat palms and then alternate lightly with your finger tips on the same path. This stroke can be used to calm baby at any time.
Keep the pressure very light, smooth your hand over the abdomen in continuous, circular clockwise strokes, working up the baby’s right side, across and down the baby’s left side. Use the belly button as the starting point and enlarge the area using circular motions as you go around. Keep the movement continuous, rhythmic and soft. You can play soft slow music in the background. This helps set a pace. Start by first laying your left hand and lifting it when your right hand lands on the massage area. Repeat these circular strokes several times.
Gently stretch out both arms to the side, spreading the hands and fingers. Gently squeeze along the arms and then massage the wrists and palms with light circular movements. Finish by stretching out each finger with a slight pull.
Move on to the legs and feet, working on one leg at a time. Support the leg with both hands and gently squeeze and release the fleshy part of the thigh. Supporting the leg with one hand, stroke the leg from the knee to the thigh. Slowly move down with a soft stroke and up again with a little more pressure.
Move your supporting hand down to behind the ankle. Gently smooth the palm of your other hand over the top of the foot from toe to ankle and back again. When you get to the toes, gently stretch each toe in turn. Repeat steps four and five on the other leg.
Turn baby over. Begin by stroking upwards with both hands on baby’s whole back to spread the oil. Take your strokes around the sides as well and then up the legs, back and out over the arms. Gently massage the back. Your baby will find this soothing because of its calming effect on the spinal nerves.
Gently squeeze and knead the buttocks to stimulate circulation. Make a loose fist and rotate over the buttocks in circular movements towards the spinal cord.
Alternating your hands, one over the other, stroke upwards, starting from one side of the back to the shoulders and down again. Repeat on the other side of the back.
Bring both hands around the sides of the upper body and use your thumbs in a wiper movement up the back to the base of the neck and down again. Include a gentle massage on the shoulders achieved by alternating your thumbs one over the other and move towards the neck. This helps to stretch baby’s shoulder muscles.
To finish, repeat the feather strokes used on the abdomen, working all over the back from buttocks to the neck.
Important Principles of massage to remember
The technique has to involve the basic requirements of backing-up, hooking-in and smoothing out when applying pressure and movement. The principle of “sandwiching” an arm, fingers, leg and toes applies when using both hands to fully support and cover the area while stroking as far as your hands and the area allows. Furthermore, if you want to achieve stretching, you need to hold the point of beginning with one hand, let us say the wrist, and smooth out the moving hand towards the heart to enhance the venous return, always with a stroke away from you.
The path of movement is always towards the heart and away from you. The pressure will differ from very light in the case of a baby to hard in the case of a sport massage. The movements can be long or short. Longer movements are normally for circulatory benefits, while short movements are more intense and specific to an area where muscular matting can be broken down. Furthermore, the pathways of movements can be longitudinal, circular on the same spot causing friction, across or diagonal.
Long movements are for stretching and short movements are for pressure work. Depending on the size of the area massaged, you can use the tip of your fingers, your knuckles, palm or heel of the hand. You can use one or both hands, the thumb alone, the fore and middle finger or the ring finger. The latter will have the least impact because it is the weakest. Using four fingers for circular movements is the best for a softer touch while using the flat palm and thumb is good for friction.
The movements in Swedish massage which is the most popular technique in western medicine have names to identify them. Different practitioners might differ in their terminology but here are some helpful ones to note:
Stroke: This is a soft longitudinal movement, mainly with a flat palm towards the heart.
Knuckling: With this movement you use your hand in fist formation placing the palm area on the massage area.
Kneading: This is a flesh grip movement moving your four fingers towards your thumb forming a letter C while you turn your palm to face upward releasing flesh gradually.
Pinching: This is a brisk pinching or skin lifting movement ideal for nerve stimulation.
Vibrations: This can be soothing or stimulating. It is conveyed by the palmar surface of a relaxed hand, which rests slightly on the massage area. The movement is achieved by very rapid contractions and relaxation of the muscles of the fore-arm of the therapist.
Benefits of massage
Massage therapy has several benefits for both full-term and premature babies. Humans require touch in order to thrive emotionally and physically. If you would like to learn more about massage therapy and its benefits to your baby speak to your doctor or read the study conducted by Dr. Tiffany Field at the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute.
Annabella Coetzee studied Massage Therapy with international accreditation at The Kay Rive Institute for Health and Beauty (Pretoria, South Africa) in 1999. She has over 10 years practical experience working as a therapist as well as in the training of massage therapists. The content of the article published here is based on her practical experience and appropriate study manuals in her collection.