Relaxation and Bonding through Infant Massage

Several sets of parents arrive at CHD’s Early Intervention playroom, all carrying their babies. The grownups sit down on the mat and position the babies on their backs, heads resting on a pillow. Some little ones are fidgety and others quiet, but there is a sense of anticipation among them. Over the past few weeks, they’ve been attending this class and have learned what comes next: infant massage.

“Infant massage class is an opportunity to educate new parents about good parenting,” said Cindy Napoli, Early Intervention Program Supervisor for CHD. Napoli, an Occupational Therapist Registered/Licensed (MOTR/L), Licensed Physical Therapy Assistant (LPTA), and Certified Educator of Infant Massage (CEIM), has been actively involved in designing and delivering a new program centered on infant massage for babies enrolled in CHD’s Early Intervention Program.

“Infant massage is intended to enhance parent-infant interaction and promote healthy growth and development,” Napoli explained. “It’s different than adult massage where the massaged participant is passive. We don’t want to the baby to zone out. We want the baby to be in active-alert state so they are more likely to be receptive, calm, and quiet. That helps them interact well with their parents. The act of infant massage helps parents and babies to relax and bond. It’s all about loving touch to nurture the baby. The connections you make with your child through infant massage are great moments in parenting.”

Infant massage isn’t new. It’s been practiced for centuries in many cultures around the world, including some in India, China and South America. According to Dr. Steve Berman, past-president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the real potential of infant massage is that it sets up a dynamic between the parent and child that promotes conversing, communication and encouragement.

With babies alert and on their backs, parents in the class begin the massage with open resting hands. “This is a way parents ask permission to touch their baby,” Napoli explained. “That helps a parent and baby to build trust. You can tell if they’re ready and receptive from the baby’s gaze, facial expressions, posture, and other non-verbal or pre-verbal expressions of comfort or distress.”

One of the young ones began to coo in response to his father’s touch. “When babies are talking to you, talk back,” Napoli advised. “They may not have language skills yet but they’re trying to tell you something, so meet them where they are at. Label the body parts your touching, tell them what you’re doing to their arms, fingers, and legs. They learn to talk by listening to you, so talk to them.”

Parents raise their baby’s arm and rub beneath in gentle steps. This is called a pit stop and helps to stimulate glands under the arms. Next parents do wrist circles and hug-and-glide along their baby’s arms, followed by finger rolls, where parents softly squeeze their baby’s fingers and roll them side to side. They finish each arm with Swedish massage to return blood back to the body. “Whatever we take out to the hands, we bring back to the heart,” Napoli said.

Massaging the baby’s stomach can stimulate the bowels and help with constipation. The bottom of each foot has many nerve cells and a gentle massage there can be stimulating. Holding the baby’s feet, parents can alternate leg movement by bending the baby’s knee to create a pumping motion like riding a bicycle.

Throughout the massage, a parent maintains continual touch with the infant. “Let your baby know you are still in contact by repositioning your hand in a way that maintains touch. When you’re done, finish up with integration, a gentle rub from top to bottom that lets your baby know you’re done.”

Every parent who comes to infant massage class has a child enrolled in Early Intervention, typically to address a developmental delay. As a result, the sessions also function as parent support groups so parents can talk to each other about what they are experiencing and how they’re using infant massage at home. “My son has learned what’s coming next when I do resting hands,” said a father in the class. “Now that it’s part of his routine, he slows down and starts to relax because he likes the attention.”  One of the mothers said, “We do massage when he’s fussy and he likes it, but we’re finding it’s most beneficial when he has constipation.”

An infant crying can really tick off parents—especially inexperienced parents—and that can fuel a downward spiral that leads to parents abusing their child. According to Foundation for Healthy Family Living (, studies show that infant massage classes can dramatically reduce the incidence of child abuse. For example, in 1997 an infant massage program was taught by social service staff in Douglas County, Oregon, to families at risk of abuse. During the project year, confirmed cases of abuse dropped from 104 to 15.

Studies on infant massage published in numerous medical journals have identified a range of benefits for babies, including:

  • Improved interaction with family
  • Stress reduction
  • Improved sleep patterns
  • Enhanced cognition and motor development
  • Increased weight gain for premature babies
  • Improved self-regulation for fussy or colicky babies
  • Enhanced comfort for babies with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)

Also cited are benefits for parents:

  • Better understanding and response to baby’s cues
  • Improved techniques to comfort, calm, and soothe baby
  • Additional way to provide close, nurturing contact
  • Relief from postpartum depression
  • Natural and pleasant method to bond with baby
  • Increased confidence in their ability to care for baby

Overall, babies who get a daily rubdown tend to sleep better, grow faster and be less fussy. As a result, their parents tend to be more relaxed and rested, too. Parents can get to know their babies better and build a foundation for communication that continues long after infancy ends.

Napoli ends each infant massage class with a poem. On this day it’s “If You Give a MOM a Cookie,” a clever twist on the famous children’s story “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Numeroff and Felicia Bond. The message: no matter how prepared you think you are as a parent, something will get in the way, so just deal with one thing at a time and keep moving forward.

For families with a child enrolled in CHD Early Intervention, the infant massage program is included at no cost. Members of the community can be involved as space permits. There is a referral process (immunization records, etc.), but a doctor’s note is not required.

“Infant massage is about the attention you provide in that moment,” said Napoli. “Your baby will not likely remember these interactions, but it means so much to them in the moment and the bond you form and develop will improve your long-term relationship. It’s never too early to start good, engaged parenting.”

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To learn more about the Infant Massage program at CHD Early Intervention, call 413-739-3954

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