Baby massage: benefits & techniques

Baby massage is easy to learn and relatively intuitive. Many parents already comfort their children with backrubs, bellyrubs, and footrubs. The key component of baby massage is that parents soothe their children through touch that is gentle and loving. 

Benefits of baby massage

Infant massage has many benefits for babies. Studies show that massage promotes infant growth and development. It stimulates the nerves, increases blood flow, strengthens the immune system, stimulates the digestive system, and improves sleep. In addition, it can relieve gas pains and colic.

But the benefits aren’t just physical. Massage can help both infant and parent relax. It also enhances parent-child bonding (between mom and baby, dad and baby, or both) by providing a context for positive, attentive interaction. Since newborn babies can’t communicate in the traditional sense, infant massage supports parent-child communication by encouraging parents to read and respond to their baby's needs and feelings, as expressed through verbal and nonverbal cues.

The many benefits of baby massage aren’t limited to infants. Many toddlers experience all the same benefits as babies. 

Infant massage basics

You don’t need to follow any particular infant massage program. The essential elements for infant massage are commitment, time, a comfortable environment, and flexibility. You’ll also want to use a dab of unscented oil; massage experts tend to recommend grapeseed, which is absorbed nicely by the baby’s skin.

Infant massage works best when it becomes part of your baby’s daily routine. The environment should be comfortable for your baby. Make sure the room is warm enough (your baby will be naked or clad in just a diaper), and prepare a soft, safe surface such as a blanket on the floor. 

One type of massage starts with the infant’s legs and feet and then moves on to the tummy, chest, arms, hands, face, and back. Each part should receive a series of slow, tender strokes before moving on to the next area. Other types of massage suggest that the movements flow from head to feet. Here are a few specific strokes to try: 

  • I love you. A must-learn tummy relaxer that enhances digestive comfort, this stroke uses hand movements that follow the direction of the colon and large intestine clockwise. Begin by making a downward stroke (“I”) on the left side of your baby’s belly. Then, make a backward, upside-down “L” from your left to right, running your hand across your baby’s belly then down the right side. Follow that with an upside down “U,” from your left to right.
  • Milking the leg. Holding one foot in your hand, use your other hand to firmly “milk” the leg from thigh to heel. Then reverse, and “milk” from heel to thigh. A similar stroke can be used on the arms.
  • Face time. Using your thumbs, stroke across your baby’s upper lip, and then across the lower lip and into the cheek; imagine you are drawing a “smile” on your baby’s face. Also, beginning with your thumbs above your baby’s eyebrows, stroke outward and down the cheeks, bringing your fingers together at the chin; imagine you are drawing a “heart.”

During the massage, watch your baby for signs of dislike or discomfort. If he stiffens his body, turns his face away, or cries, stop and interact with your baby in another way.

Experts agree that about 15 minutes is a good length of time for a baby’s massage. The baby should be stroked symmetrically, meaning tending to both sides of the body during each session. Parents are encouraged to talk to their infants during the massage. 

Last updated May 16, 2019

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