Baby & toddler massage - does it really help sleep?
Massage has long been associated with numerous benefits, not just for young children but for adults as well. Some cultures, particularly those in Asian and African countries, use massage as a routine part of their overall health and well-being. For others, it’s more of a strategy used for stress management and general relaxation.
After they’re born, most babies love to feel enveloped by swaddling as this helps to build their feelings of security. Massage is another way for babies to feel they are being ‘contained’, especially when they are too young to control their own movements.
Come here little one…
Touch is one of the first ways we communicate with each other. Babies in-utero are constantly having indirect contact with their mother’s muscles and tissues, and their body is accustomed to feeling some degree of gentle friction.
Skin-to skin- contact immediately after birth is promoted as being a very positive, early way to build emotional connection between parents and their baby. It makes sense that babies generally respond to massage because it builds on what they’re used to. And toddlers who are used to being massaged as babies learn that it’s a lovely thing.
5 things we know to be true about baby and toddler massage
- Most babies and toddlers love to be touched in a gentle and soothing way.
- We focus a lot on voice and eye contact, however touch is another way to communicate with our babies. Massage is a different type of touch to what’s involved in feeding and changing.
- There’s no ‘one right way’ to massage a young child. As long as you’re gentle and sensitive to their responses you won’t get it wrong.
- Certain times of the day will work better than others. When your baby is tired, hungry, cranky or just unhappy with the world, they won’t be as responsive as when they’ve had all their needs met.
- Pick a time when you’re feeling relaxed and calm as your mood will have an impact on how effective your massage techniques will be. This way, both you and your child will benefit from the experience.
Why baby and toddler massage is so good
Massage does appear to reduce levels of stress hormones in unsettled babies. Skin to skin contact also seems to improve a baby’s health, boost weight gain in premature babies, ease crying and have a positive effect on the interaction between a mother and her baby.
It’s worth knowing there is no current evidence supporting infant massage as having a positive effect on babies’ growth or development.
Other benefits of baby and toddler massage
- Some people believe that baby massage is an opportunity to boost a parent’s confidence in touching and handling their child. As they calm, they give positive feedback to their parent.
- Helps to calm and soothe both parent and their child. There’s a symbiotic loop which occurs when a young child smiles and shows happiness which, in turn, causes their parent to smile back. This creates positive changes in the child’s (and parent’s) brain.
- Massage may help to relieve wind and colicky discomfort.
- Helps to fill in time between feeds and sleeps. Massage is another strategy for parents to try when they’re keen to use a flexible routine to create predictability around sleep and settling.
How to give your baby or toddler massage
Remember, there’s no ‘right’ way to massage. What’s important is that you’re gentle and sensitive to your baby or toddler’s responses. Expect your toddler to be more mobile and distractible than a young baby.
- Ask your child’s permission first before you massage them. Although they won’t understand what you’re saying, they’ll pick up on the tone of your voice. Seeking permission is also a respectful way of acknowledging your baby’s rights over their own body.
- Pick a time when you’re both calm and happy. Make sure you’re not in a rush to be somewhere else and can be fully focused on your baby.
- Choose a safe and stable place to massage your child. Their change table/mat, a bed, their cot or even the floor are all good options.
- Get organised by warming the room or picking a warm spot in your house, so your child doesn’t become cold. Choose a room which has filtered light and where there’s no draughts.
- Lay out a couple of towels for your child to lie on and have some massage or vegetable oil handy. Avoid using nut oils in case of allergies.
- Take off your jewellery and warm your own hands. Rub a little oil or massage lotion between your hands. Take some deep, relaxing breaths and make a conscious effort to be ‘in the moment’ with your little one.
- Put on some relaxing music or something which will add to the relaxing mood you’re trying to create.
- Lay your child on their back or front; it’s not really important which to start with.
- Undress your child; though leave their nappy on until you’ve worked your way up their legs to their bottom.
- Start at their feet by using gentle strokes to massage their soles and toes. Be aware that some babies have ticklish feet and don’t find foot massage pleasant.
- Use firm, continuous strokes with the whole of your hand if you can. The palm of your hand or just your fingers is fine too.
- Work your way up their legs, using both your hands to make long stroking actions, similar to how you would pat a cat. As you lift one hand, place the other one at the top of their leg, working your way down to their toes.
- Massage their tummy in a gentle, clockwise direction. Bicycle their legs and gently bring their knees up to their chest and back down again.
- Stroke your child’s arms and hands with long continuous strokes.
- You can also massage your child’s face, using the pads of your fingers to go in circular directions around their eyes and mouth.
- Turn your child onto the other side and repeat the massage steps.
And one last tip on massage
Don’t be worried if you need to finish your child’s massage earlier than you’d planned. They’ll let you know when they’ve had enough.
Remember, massage needs to be an enjoyable process from the start to anytime you finish.
Written for Safe Sleep Space by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse.
Help with looking after your baby
The NourishBaby - Guide to Babies - is an online program that you can view in your own time. The Guide to Babies helps you to understand and care for your baby and covers key milestones, sleep and settling advice and baby development. There is a section on real parents sharing their experience of adjusting to parenthood.
Many parents have reduced sleep when a new baby arrives. Our Safe Sleep Space website has a variety of resources and support to provide tips and advice on how to assist your baby with sleep. You can also book a phone consultation to speak with a Sleep Consultant.
- Cindy Davenport