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Parents Corner

Adults have come to know the pleasure and soothing effects of massage. Babies also love and benefit from this ancient art of touch. The benefits of regular massage many include strengthened parent-child bonds, relief of colic symptoms, helping babies sleep and enhancing the infants mental, physical and emotional development. Parents that I have worked with say it’s fun and relaxing.

Julie Loe

The Magic of Touch:
Even Babies Love Massage

Infant Massage Gently Builds A Bond And May Also Boost Health

By Ann Doss Helms Charlotte, N.C.
Tribune Saturday, April 17,1999, Knight Ridder Newspapers

As soft music plays and candles scent the air, gentle hands stroke bellies round as fresh-baked rolls. Sometimes the clients babble with delight. Sometimes they cry. Either is fine. These little people have the rest of their lives to do what others demand.

Today they are receiving infant massage. Their parents gaze into their eyes, caress them from downy heads to tiny toes, and learn to read their every glance, cry and hiccup.

"It’s like a dance, where you’re kind of getting to know each other, back and forth," say Catherine O’Grady of Charlotte.

Infant massage therapists don’t give baby rub-downs. They teach parents a series of strokes and exercises for their babies, advise them on infant development and give lessons in the art of communication without words. There’s a routine to help when a baby’s nose is stuffed up and another for gas pains. For a quick daily massage, mom might start by rubbing gentle circles around baby’s head, stroke the chest, roll the arms and legs in her hands and softly swish her hands across the back.

Sessions can start when a baby is less than a month old, and they work best in the first few months of life. (If you have to ask why, you haven’t tried to get a toddler to hold still lately.)

Practitioners say regular massage strengthens parent-child bonds, relieves colic, helps babies sleep and enhances infants mental, physical and emotional development.

Parents say it’s fun and relaxing. Many enjoy getting massages themselves, so it only makes sense to them that their babies would, too.

"Touch is so important, and it’s something we as Americans don’t get comfortable with. If I can get my child comfortable with it early on, I think that’s great," said Chris Dawes of Mooresville, N.C., who recently took O’Grady’s classes with her 9 month old daughter, Alexandra.

Scientists at the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute have looked at the benefits of massage for babies with problem, such as premature birth, HIV and drug exposure and depressed mothers. In all of those cases, babies who received regular massage gained more weight and developed better than control groups without massage.

Cary Pickard of Charlotte is a fervent believer. Her second child, Sara, was born with a brain abnormality six months ago. Pickard believes constant, loving touch has helped Sara smile, lift her head and develop some sight. She’s taking an infant massage class with high hopes.

"I think the power of touch has an incredible power to heal," Pickard said.

Infant massage isn’t new, but it’s stepping out of the Charlotte scene. Vimala Schneider McClure introduced the idea to the US in the 1970"s, after seeing parents in India use traditional strokes to soothe and love their babies. Her book, "Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parent" (Bantam Books, $13.95), has been in print since 1978, and many parenting manuals touch on the topic.

Barbara Hess, director of mental health education at the Charlotte Area Health Education Center, started teaching infant massage to social workers and health professionals about two years ago. Her personal interest in massage lead her to take classes from the International Association of Infant Massage and share her skills with people who help parents and babies.

O’Grady, a pediatric researcher at Carolinas Medical Center, and Sheri Lesneski, a parent educator with the Towan County Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Council, earned their infant massage certification last year and started offering private classes. Lesneski, who teaches in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Rowan and Stanley counties, says many people see infant massage as some kind of gimmick.

"It’s very slow building the confidence of people. They kind of laugh it off as, ‘Massage? Yeah, right,’" Lesneski said.

Indeed, skeptics might get a good chuckle hearing about strokes with names like Sun and Moon, I Love You and Swedish Milking. They might smirk at classes in which some babies fuss for a bottle, others nod off and still others-not to point fingers at the little boys-spray their masseuses when the diapers come off.

And eyebrows might raise at the notion that every session should start with the parents asking the baby’s permission. "They can’t answer," O’Grady explains, "but you set the pattern of respect."

A baby with a bright expression, intent gaze and quiet alertness is signaling, "Go ahead: I’m ready." Yawns, arched backs, squirms, burps, hiccups - and crying, of course - indicate it’s time to back off and try something else.

When the time is right, the massage begins. Parents knead pudgy thighs and trace tiny circles on temples. Babies coo and relax.

O’Grady softly urges the parents to let their love flow through their hands. They slide their fingers along skin as soft and perfect as any living thing will ever be, and the touch is as reverent as a prayer.

For more information, call the International Association of Infant Massage, 1-800-248-5432, and leave a mailing address.

Ironwood Television sells a video titled "Gentle Touch: Infant Massage" for $29.95. Call 1-800-383-7238. 9AM to 5PM Eastern time weekdays.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013