That feels good

A group of women lean over their babies, caressing and
stretching their limbs, rubbing their bellies, and beaming at them.
The babies’ serenity suggests that the enjoyment is shared.
“After the first session, babies start to anticipate and enjoy it
and are often quiet throughout,” says baby massage instructor
Joanna Brien. “Massage produces endorphins, which relaxes them. But
you’re also encouraging people to see cues. If the baby
starts crying, then they stop and cuddle or feed.”

At a Sure Start centre in Bellingham, south east London, Tracy
Brady says that three-month-old Brooke “loves massage. She gets
really relaxed.” Ellisha Flowers says that she was “excited” about
learning baby massage at the centre. Her son, four-month-old
Jahvarn, “has trouble sleeping but I massage him after a bath and
he sleeps straight away. That’s beneficial for me.” Health
visitor Rebecca Saunders says: “The practitioner doesn’t take

doesn’t touch the baby.” She has been running the
centre’s postnatal massage training sessions for a year.
“People enjoy it and feel that it’s a benefit for them and
their children.”

Apart from relaxing babies, massage has been shown to help with
colic, digestive problems and physical development. But research
has also thrown up more striking results. Babies in intensive care
who had three 15-minute massages a day over 10 days showed
significant improvements, especially in weight gain, compared with
a control group. Other studies involving premature babies and those
born to cocaine-using mothers have shown a reduction in the
infants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Baby massage
instructor Suzanne Adamson says that: “Positive touch is
nourishing. Touch produces ‘happy hormones’, such as
serotonin and oxytocin. That early, happy experience creates a
sense [in the baby] that their environment is loving and secure.”
Baby massage has also been shown to help reduce mothers’
anxiety and postnatal depression.

The studies have largely taken place in hospitals. Nonetheless,
those working with children see massage in community settings
playing a part in diverting children from troubled futures.
“We’re not sure what proportion but a number of early years
settings, including some Sure Start local programmes, early years
centres, nurseries and early excellence centres, are offering
training in baby massage for parents,” says Lonica Vanclay,
children’s well-being and inclusion team leader at the Sure
Start national unit. “We think it’s a positive activity.
It’s likely that it can help improve parent-child
relationships because of the bonding it encourages.”

Neither Sure Start nor the Department for Education and Skills
(DfES) has plans to issue guidance on baby massage, nor is there
any one recommended training course. Vanclay says that it is up to
individual Sure Start programmes to decide what services to

However, Support from the Start, published by the DfES, lists
baby massage as a “promising intervention” for infants up to two.
The report examines ways of working with young children and their
families to reduce the risks of crime and antisocial behaviour in
later life. It notes that risk factors in children under two, such
as a child being hyperactive, rejected, under-stimulated or hit, or
having a poor attachment to their primary carer or a difficult
temperament, can be offset by strong maternal bonding or a close
attachment to at least one adult.

“It seems that close attachment of the child to her mother or
primary care giver and the maternal bonding between a mother and
her child may be helped by massage,” says associate director of
DeMontford University’s unit for parenting studies and one of
the report’s authors, Carole Sutton. “Bonding underpins a
commitment to the child and its emotional well-being,” she
explains. “It’s nurturing, which is a protective factor for

For Sir Richard Bowlby, an expert in attachment theory, massage
is particularly important in helping a mother learn about and
relate to her baby. “She starts by ‘asking the baby’s
permission’ by rubbing her [oiled] palms together in front of
the baby’s face. If the baby is alert and makes eye contact,
she massages. Otherwise, she must back off. After a week or two,
the baby knows what will happen when she hears the rubbing and
responds quickly. It’s very exciting for a mum to realise her
baby is responding, even at a very young age,” he says. “The mother
discovers her baby, is permitted to coo with her baby, in a social
setting. The delight and joy that the baby recognises is why they
attach to someone. So, there’s play and excitement, key
factors to the baby beginning to bond.”

He points out that where a mother is particularly vulnerable,
perhaps due to depression or childhood abuse, and might fear to
touch her child, massage is a gentle, safe and non-judgmental way
for her to learn to handle, play and enjoy her child.

Research has yet to prove which of the physiological and
psychological elements of massage are critical in producing the
positive results. However, this may be unimportant in practice,
according to Support from the Start. “Since outcome studies are all
indicating enhanced interactions for babies and mothers, this has
the potential to provide an inexpensive way of strengthening
protective factors and improving children’s overall
functioning,” the report concludes. In other words, it’s
cheap and it seems to work. What better reasons could there be for
practitioners to encourage mothers to get down and massage their

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