As a children’s physiotherapist people tend to think the reason I teach baby massage is to help babies who have problems with their muscles and joints. It is true that I do use some of my skills learnt through baby massage training when working with children with physical problems, but baby massage goes much further than the direct physical benefits of the strokes.
I first experienced the power of ‘positive touch’ when working on a neonatal unit (intensive and special care baby units). The experience of having a baby born too sick, too small or too early places both physical and emotional barriers in the way of parents and baby touch. Parents can be fearful and anxious of touching and approaching their baby, which can give them the sense of helplessness and being unable to offer their baby what they need.
This however could not be further from the truth. Even the sickest most vulnerable babies need their parents, whether it be the nutritious and protective properties of their mothers breast milk, their fathers supportive touch during stressful procedures or the reassurance and familiar smell and sound of their parents to aid their sleep; the role of the parent in the neonatal environment is vital to their babies development.
Touch is the earliest sense to develop and is present from week 7 of gestation. By 12 weeks in utero the foetus is able to bring their hand to their face. The womb provides a constant sense of tactile stimulation all over the body as a result of its own and mother’s activity. When a baby is born into the environment of the neonatal unit, their experience of touch changes instantly and drastically and is far from that of a infant who is delivered into their mothers arms. Touch in the NICU is driven by procedure rather than the primary purpose of care and comfort. The role of a neonatal nurse and support team is to find opportunities in the neonatal unit for positive touch between mother and baby (and father and baby) and facilitate the natural association between touch and attachment.
This can be challenging but the rewards are instant and long lasting and can lead to better growth, sleep and even cognitive development of the baby. On a neonatal unit this process starts with parents watching their babies, learning about their cues and signs; what increases their stress and what can be done to reduce it. Even a baby born 3 months early communicates with behaviours and signs which parents are very quickly able to attune to. Next parents learn to approach their babies and provide supportive and comforting touch based on their babies cues and signs and when confident parents are encouraged and supported to start being involved with caring for their baby. Then when baby and parents are ready nursing and support staff facilitate parents with skin to skin contact out of the incubator. This can be daunting and frightening for the parents but very quickly the positive outcomes of skin to skin become evident. Babies feel secure and comfortable and parents instantly feel closeness to their baby. The hormonal response to touch also named the ‘love hormone’ (oxytocin) helps not only with lactation but also the feeling of ownership and attachment with their baby. This leads to increased confidence and reduced fear and anxiety around caring for their baby.
As therapist who regularly works with young babies and their families, I view one of the most important roles of my practice to support the parent-baby relationship as well as development. The impact of bonding and attachment on development should not be underestimated. Research indicates that early social attachment has a significant effect on developing specific brain mechanisms, which regulate behaviour. Persistent and inappropriate aggressive behaviour in childhood and adulthood has been cited as a characteristic of someone who was an ‘unattached infant’ (Kramer 1996).
But it is not only families with babies born into the neonatal unit who struggle with bonding and attachment. Parents from all walks of life and backgrounds can struggle with what is perceived as ‘a natural and instant process, which is why I trained in infant massage.
Infant massage incorporates several elements of bonding; eye to eye contact, touch, odour, verbal and non-verbal communication. Founder of the International Association of Infant Massage Vimala McClure describes massage as a gentle, warm interaction, rather than a manipulative technique. It is true that certain strokes and routines learnt in baby massage can help with constipation, gas and circulation and that regular massage can help with restlessness, irritability and sleep; but to me the most powerful and rewarding part of being an infant massage instructor is seeing the bond between baby and caregiver and facilitating the long lasting and on-going physical relationship between children and their parents throughout their lives.
Rachel teaches Infant Massage courses and offers one to one sessions from Rowan House, to read more about Rachel and her baby massage classes please follow these links.