When you're a new parent faced with a crying baby, you'll do almost anything to make the agonizing sounds stop. On the whole, the body seems wired to want to stop soothe a crying baby, which is probably why there are whole sections of book stores dedicated to that very topic. One method that's constantly praised is infant massage. But what are people talking about when they refer to massaging a baby? Should you be preparing oils and cuing the ambient music? If you're wondering how to massage your baby to calm down from crying, we've got the scoop.
The first, and probably most essential thing you'll want to do when preparing to massage your baby, is find a quiet place to do it. As the Mayo Clinic points out, your location can be indoors or outdoors, it doesn't matter as long as it is quiet and warm (the website for What To Expect recommends about 75 degrees). If you're caught in the "wild" with a screaming and crying baby, just do your best to find a spot that's not too loud or as stimulating as where the crying initially started.
Most of the descriptions from experts about just how to go about massaging your baby assume that you are in the most ideal of circumstances (like when you're at home, or in a quiet, comfortable place). But a baby crying can happen basically anywhere, and most often happens at inopportune times (hello, Baby's First Airplane Ride!). It is important to know that you can use these directions as guidelines, understanding that they can be adapted for those "holy crap" moments when you're completely flustered with a screaming baby and there's no perfectly quiet "massage-friendly space" to occupy.
After securing a quiet location, you'll want to place your baby somewhere stable and where they won't roll onto the floor. If you're home, then that could be on your bed or changing table. But if you're, say, at your older child's preschool drop off, then your stroller or a chair in an empty side room will do just fine. What To Expect reports that if you're home when your baby starts crying, you can try using some naturally-derived massage oil that is easily absorbed into baby's skin, such as canola, corn, olive, grape seed, apricot, avocado, or safflower oils.
When you place your baby on their back, the Mayo Clinic suggests trying to maintain eye contact with baby. They also advise that, as you're undressing your baby, that you say something along the lines of "now it is massage time." (Note: Wait at least 45 minutes after a feeding before massaging, so as not to induce vomiting. If your baby has underlying health issues, speak to your baby's doctor first.) If you're in public you can't exactly get your baby naked, but at least remove their cardigan or jacket, and those cute shoes that you usually only get them to wear for an hour a day.
Experts all agree that infant massage requires a light hand, at least at first. When you first start the massage on your crying baby, you'll want to use an especially gentle touch, to make sure that your baby is into the whole idea. (Note: This is not a tickle session, and the tickling could just irritate them further.) As your baby gets older, they might be able to tolerate a firmer massage.
The Mayo Clinic also suggests slowly stroking and kneading each part of your baby's body. You can try placing your baby on their stomach and spend one minute each on rubbing different parts of their body, including neck, head, shoulders, upper back, waist, thighs, feet, and hands. Then, switch your baby to their back and spend one minute each extending and flexing their arms and legs individually, and then both legs at the same time. Last, with your baby either on their back or belly, repeat the rubbing motions for another five minutes. Again, you probably don't have the luxury of time on your side if you're trying to quell a baby scream storm. Also, you likely have a lot of other things to do with your day, then indulge in massage time. So just do your best here.
As you massage your baby, talk to him or her. This is not one of those massage sessions where you have to play the quiet masseuse. Your baby is not looking to zone out from you. On the contrary, your baby needs this connection with you, your touch, and your voice. You can sing to your baby, or tell them a story. The website for The Mayo Clinic suggests even saying your baby's name or saying the word "relax" to help your baby release tension.
Observe your baby's responses to your massage. If your baby is giggling and jiggling their arms and seems happy, that probably tells you that the massage is getting an A in their book. You'd get a tip if you were a paying customer. But is your baby turning their head away from you as if you smell like bad cheese or otherwise acting unhappy? You're probably annoying them, which means you should probably try this massage a little later.
It might be surprising to learn that infant massage isn't one of those "new millennial" things that overindulgent parents of late just invented. The practice of gently massaging babies has been around for centuries, in many cultures (in Indian culture, for example). However, infant massage is a relatively new practice in the West. According to the website for Infant Massage USA, that’s due largely to the work of a woman named Vimala Schneider McClure, who is said to have been the "founder" of infant massage in the West.
For the many, many moms and dads who’ve used infant massage, the benefits are numerous, according to the Baby Sleep Site. Because here's the thing: infant massage is good for both your baby and you! Some of those benefits include stress and tension relief. Gently massaging your baby can help calm and relax her or him, according to the Baby Sleep Site, and it will help calm and relax you in the process. This may be quite welcoming information for parents of especially fussy or colicky babies.
What to Expect's website notes that massage can ease tummy troubles and teething pains, boost muscle development, calm a baby when they're fussy, and soothe a baby to sleep. Also, stroking and touching helps make bonding between you and baby easier. The bonding doesn't just work for moms and babies. It's also a great way for Dad and Baby to bond, too. And it can become part of a daily routine, easily.
How does infant massage actually work to calm a baby down when they're crying? The Mayo Clinic states that research suggests that infant massage positively affects the infant hormones that control stress, and ultimately helps reduce crying. A 2008 study published in the journal Infant Behavior Development showed that among a small randomized group of preterm infants, massage therapy over a period of five days reduced stressful behaviors observed in those infants.
In general, infants seem to respond very positively to touch when they are under stress. The simple act of carrying can produce an automatic calming reaction in infants. A study published in 2013 in the journal Current Biology showed that even mouse pups are deeply relaxed by carrying, just the same as human infants. The study was the first to demonstrate that the infant calming response to being carried by their mother is, "a coordinated set of nervous, motor, and cardiac regulations." The study found that infants relax after they are picked up and carried, whereas if they are simply picked up but are not carried, it does not elicit the same response. Though carrying a baby is not the same exact thing as massage, it is another tactile way that babies feel comforted and can be calmed down from a stressful reaction to an overstimulating environment. The power of touch is very real.
Of course, you'll always get the nay-sayers. A 2010 study published on the in the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) National Institutes of Health's (NIH) website, examined (among many other factors that could effect colic in infants) the effects of infant massage on colicky infants. They concluded that they found "no evidence of benefit from infant massage." Even more surprising, when they compared a vibrating machine placed in a crib to that of a mother's touch, they found no signficant difference in the calming effects on crying infants. The study authors went even further, by saying that massage might even unsettle or overstimulate colicky infants. Yikes.
The most important experiment is the one you do on your own test subject: your baby. If your baby is crying and you've tried other things that haven't worked, give infant massage a go. If you have the chance to go for the full luxury package (at home, with oils, and a naked baby), see what happens. This could be your path to Serenity Now.
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