Amanda Barry’s little girl seemed inconsolable: wailing, shrieking, fussy, and restless. Such ear-splitting crying spells can be tough for new parents to endure. Holding, cradling, or gentle patting were ineffective remedies for Barry’s cranky baby, but with a few adjustments and lessons, the new mom learned how to turn those signs of affection into soothing infant massages.
“It’s particularly satisfying when you see that she’s enjoying it. I think ‘Finally, I hit on something that the baby likes!’” says Barry, who started taking her daughter Evelyn (now 9 months old) to Annette Oevermann’s infant massage classes when she was a newborn. “It’s great to have another way to help calm them, especially when you’re a sleep-deprived parent.”
Oevermann says such signs of affection don’t merely soothe young ones; touch has biological and chemical effects far more beneficial than the most cutting-edge medicines or technologies.
“During massage, the hormone oxytocin is released in the body of both the giver and receiver. It is involved in generating loving, nurturing feelings, which help us to bond,” says Oevermann, a certified massage therapist and instructor at AO Bodywork for Babies, where she teaches parents about the benefits and techniques of infant massage.
“When your baby gets older, they smile and you can clearly interact. But when they’re small they just seem to eat and sleep, eat and sleep, then cry,” explains Barry. “When Evelyn was a newborn, massage was a great way to help make a connection.”
Ningyi Zhang, Barry’s husband, says forging such a bond was even more crucial for him. “When Evelyn was younger, it felt like she knew her mother. After all, she was the food source,” he laughs. The physical and psychological bond afforded by breastfeeding can leave some dads feeling inferior. “For the most part, I could only play with Evelyn and it didn’t feel like that was giving me a connection with her. It didn’t feel like she needed me. But the massage helped changed that; it turned into a little ritual that built this closeness.”
Staci Ahonen, a young mother who brought her girl Camille to Oevermann’s classes as a newborn, agrees that the techniques she learned helped her bond with her daughter.
“It helped me find a new way of interacting with her. Now, at home, we can have quality time together through massage,” she says. “Since Camille is an active baby and doesn’t want to remain in one position, Annette [Oevermann] suggested I try to massage in small intervals and the areas that are accessible.”
Though there are many benefits for parents, the ones who reap the biggest rewards from infant massage are the babies themselves. Oevermann quotes French gynecologist and obstetrician Frédérick Leboyer, the first one to introduce traditional Indian baby massage to the West: “Being touched and caressed, being massaged, is food for the infant. Food as necessary as minerals, vitamins, and proteins.”
First Things First
In order to properly give infant massages, participants must first unlearn some common misconceptions. For example, Barry thought she should be rubbing her little one near the navel but Oevermann said that gentle pressure should instead be applied in a circular motion on the upper half of the tummy. Another technique has parents moving their babies’ legs in a “bicycling” circular motion to aid digestion.
Ahonen was surprised to learn that infant massage can apparently help a child’s mental development. “We learned that clapping their hands and their feet while making eye contact will help to keep them engaged in massage,” she says.
Most parents soon realize there’s more to infant massage than a few simple pats on the back. To express this, Oevermann returns to Dr. Leboyer and his study of Indian infant massage. “In some cultures, infant massage is an age-old tradition that has been handed down from mothers to daughters from generation to generation,” she says. “In the absence of such a living tradition, there are great advantages to learning from someone who learned from a qualified instructor, and stays on top of the latest research and insights in the field of infant massage.”
“There are a number of books and videos on the topic but nothing beats hands-on training,” she continues. “Being able to ask questions and receive instant feedback goes a long way [towards building]confidence and mastering a new skill or technique. Learning with others also has the benefits of finding an inspiring and supportive community, learning from the experiences of others, and exchanging ideas.”
Oevermann teaches small groups, pacing the session so that no parent or infant becomes overwhelmed. The courses consist of four one-hour sessions over four weeks in which she introduces techniques as well as the history and science behind infant massage. Oevermann also talks about adapting infant massage to the needs and interests of children as they grow older, such as adding nursery rhymes to strokes for toddlers or giving the massages after games and practices once kids start playing sports.
Fostering Trust and Communication
But before going too in-depth, Oevermann teaches a few simple habits that should become second nature to anyone interested in infant massage. “An integral part of the way I teach infant massage is ‘asking permission’ from the baby before we begin,” she explains.
This requires the parent make eye contact with their baby before rubbing their hands together to give them a clue about what is about to happen, a gesture that Oevermann says infants quickly pick up on. “Babies may not talk, but we can take cues from their behavior,” she says.
Those non-verbal indications not only tell parents when their baby is ready for a massage, it also helps them learn when touch should be avoided.
“Some of the cues that say ‘Don’t give me a massage right now’ include grimacing, averting the eyes, or stiffening up,” says Oevermann. These nuances are critical for the baby’s development. “If we intend to make nurturing touch something they welcome in their lives, we need to respect these cues and only do massage with, and never to, a baby.”
By contrast, behaviors that indicate that the baby’s ready for a massage include raised eyebrows, eye contact, smiling, giggling, gurgling, becoming still, and playful wiggling. Once the baby’s willingness has been established, parents can begin with a technique that incorporates the right amount of pressure, avoids sensitive areas, and focuses on the most responsive spots of the infant’s torso to attain maximum relief and relaxation.
“Research has shown that the best effects in baby massage are achieved with moderate pressure. If touch is feather-light, it may irritate rather than benefit,” says Oevermann.
Using the right part of your hand is just as crucial. “Flat, soft palms and fingers feel a lot more comfortable than pointed fingertips,” she adds. It’s also best not to massage the chest first because this area is easily over-stimulated.
Once parents know which spots to avoid, Oevermann teaches her students about the parts of their baby’s body that are most responsive to infant massage.
“The best place to start when beginning infant massage are the extremities, with strokes from the periphery to the center of the body being more stimulating and strokes away from the center more calming,” she says.
Depending on the baby’s level of fussiness or sleepiness, a little bit of nuance can make a world of difference. “For a bedtime massage, the most suitable [kinds of touch]are long strokes away from the heart,” she says. “Various strokes on the tummy may be very helpful for constipation, gas, and in some cases colic. Working on the feet and stroking the back are also effective with digestive issues. Gently massaging certain areas of the face can be helpful for combating congestion or alleviating the discomforts of teething.”
For father Ningyi Zhang, these immediate benefits pale in comparison to the long-term advantages of infant massage. “There are studies that suggest it’s good for the baby’s development,” he says, especially one technique in which parents help their baby touch each of their feet to the opposite hand. “When I would help Evelyn put her left hand on her right foot, it stimulated her mind, helped her understand her body, and realize that things are connected. It was a fun routine that we could both enjoy.”
Parents who are interested in taking an infant massage course can contact Annette Oevermann at email@example.com (email her for the latest dates and times). Each session costs RMB 175 with up to two caregivers; the entire course costs RMB 700 including materials (fees to be paid at the first session). Classes take place at House of Knowledge International Kindergarten’s Victoria Gardens campus.