Once you know all the amazing evidence-based benefits of baby massage—from improving sleep to enhancing immunity, circulation, and digestion to supporting brain function and parent-child bonding—you’ll probably want to get started right away. Once your preemie’s skin can handle it, this form of touch therapy will help him grow.
You may be wondering exactly how to massage your baby, what to do, and what to avoid. The BEB Organic expert team has created this beginner’s guide to baby massage to answer all your questions and help you get started with confidence and ease. Our BEB Organic Silky Cream and Nourishing Oil add healthy ingredients to the love you give during your first tentative massage, and the expert ones you give later.
Origins and History of Infant Massage
Historians tell us that baby massage dates back 3,000 years. A valued tradition routinely practiced in cultures as widespread as India, Asia, Africa, New Zealand, and the Caribbean, the techniques of baby massage have been passed down from one generation to the next.
Baby massage was first introduced in the United States in the 1970s and continues to grow in popularity because of the growing scientific evidence for its effectiveness as an essential part of a baby’s daily routine.
The Safety of Baby Massage
When performed properly with gentle, loving strokes, infant massage is completely safe with no negative side effects. There are just a few precautions to keep in mind.
- Injury and trauma can occur if a baby is massaged too vigorously or with strong pressure, so massage gently, especially with your little preemie.
- Massage should not be given to babies who are sick or who have heart problems.
- Use a safe, non-toxic oil or lotion that does not trigger a skin reaction in your baby, like BEB Organic Nourishing Oil.
Always check with your doctor first before adding baby massage to your routine.
Getting Ready for Baby Massage
Almost all babies love massage. This will be a special time of pleasure and close connection for you and your child.
Set aside a generous amount of time when you won’t be interrupted. Turn off the ringer on your phone and close your computer. Find a good location with a firm surface and warm ambient temperature. Make sure you have everything you need at hand including massage oil, a blanket, a firm mat if you wish to use one, tissues, clean diapers, and baby clothes or pajamas.
Take a moment to relax so you don’t pass along a feeling of stress to your baby. Start with a few deep breaths and allow any tension you feel to dissolve on the out-breath. After a couple of these, you’re ready to begin.
The Do’s of Baby Massage
Whether your baby is a preemie or healthy newborn, she will benefit the most from a regular routine of massage, so select the same time every day for the massage session. Some of the best times include in the morning, after a bath or before going to bed. Experiment and see what time of day baby seems to enjoy her massage the most.
Keep your nails trimmed and take off your watch and jewelry to avoid harming your baby. Play soothing music or sing to your baby as you massage.
Make sure the room temperature is warm enough—at least 75 degrees F—since your baby will be unclothed. You can also cover baby with a blanket except for the area of the body you are massaging—this is especially advisable for preemies and newborns.
Undress your baby and place her on a blanket or mat atop a firm surface, like the floor or a changing table, one that is secure and comfortable for both of you, and soft enough for her. Make sure your baby is at a height that won’t hurt your back—either too high or too low can quickly make your back hurt.
Start with your baby on her back with her head propped on a pillow so you can easily see her expressions. Show your baby you are about to begin the massage. You could hold up your hands, rub lotion between your palms, or use a verbal cue. Use the same one each time, so your baby can learn to connect the sign with the start of the daily massage session. This routine will help her relax.
As you massage, watch for your baby’s non-verbal cues and listen for her verbal ones. Smiling, cooing, sucking, tongue extension, body movement, and placing her hand to her mouth are some of the positive signs that say, “I like this.” Frowning, crying, coughing, spitting up, hiccups, changing color, a change in breathing, throwing her arms and legs about, stiffening, and arching the back are signs to take a break or discontinue the massage.
To be sure there’s no reaction—especially with delicate preemie skin—test the oil on a small spot of your baby’s skin and wait a day before you use it for a full massage. Use a baby-appropriate oil or lotion like our BEB Organic Nourishing Oil to help your hands and fingers glide easily over your baby’s skin. It should be natural, unscented, and edible, and in an unbreakable container. Warm the oil in your hands until it reaches skin temperature—put a little in your hand then rub your hands together for a few seconds.
Downward strokes are usually calming, while upward strokes tend to be stimulating. Downward strokes are usually best for infants.
Your strokes should be firm enough so they don’t tickle. Just like adults, most babies don’t like to be tickled. Your baby’s cues will tell you if the pressure is soothing or tickling. Use light pressure when massaging joints to avoid straining the ligaments and muscles.
Use touch, your voice, eye contact and movement to give your baby a complete experience, unless he or she becomes easily over-stimulated.
The Don’ts of Baby Massage
Don’t try to massage your baby if she is sleepy, fussy, sick, or not alert. Never use a soft surface such like a bed or couch for baby massage. A changing table or the floor (with a blanket or pad) are appropriately firm surfaces.
Don’t continue massaging your infant if she appears uncomfortable or distressed. See the signs listed above in the “Do’s section.” If your baby is easily overstimulated, don’t talk, sing, or play music during the massage, but do use eye contact and whispered statements of love and encouragement to connect with her.
Don’t use deep-tissue massage as you would for an adult because it could cause trauma or injury to your baby. Light pressure and slow, gentle strokes are the most calming and soothing…and fun. Don’t massage your baby when she’s hungry or full. Be careful not to let the massage oil get into her eyes, nose, or ears. Avoid massaging the soft spot on her head, and massaging directly over her spine.
Baby Massage Techniques
As a general approach, use smooth, light strokes with your palms or fingers, but not so light that it tickles. Use fingertips to massage toes, fingers, and the head, and your palms for the other areas of the body.
Move from the center of the body outward. For example, if you are massaging an arm, start at the shoulder and end at the wrist or hand. Massage both sides of the body, not just one arm or one leg. In each session, massage the entire body, following the age-specified guidelines below, unless your child shows signs of discomfort.
Limit newborn massage to five minutes, but watch your preemie to see if even this time is too long right now. After a month, increase the time to 10 minutes. After two months you can massage your baby for 15 minutes. After six months you can massage from 20 to 30 minutes. At this age, you can follow your baby’s signals to tell you when to stop, since her mood and receptivity may vary from day-to-day.
Limit newborn massage to the arms, hands, legs, and feet. After a month, you can also massage the stomach and chest. After two months, you can also massage the head and the back.
Here are a few simple massage techniques universally loved by babies:
Arms and Legs:
Use a “milking” stroke for the arms and legs. This means encircling your baby’s hand or leg at the shoulder or hip with the thumbs and fingers of one hand and then moving downward with a gentle squeezing action similar to milking. When you reach the wrist or ankle, begin the same action with your other hand at the shoulder or hip to create an unbroken sense of touch. Also, try a “rolling” stroke where you lightly roll your baby’s arm or leg between both your hands. Then massage the palms and feet between your hands or with your fingers.
Chest, Abdomen, Back and Buttocks:
Use gentle, circular movements with your open palms or fingers or long, sweeping strokes. Start at the baby’s shoulders and stroke gently towards the chest. Massage her abdomen with your fingertips in a circular, clockwise motion. Do not massage the genitalia.
When you place your baby on her tummy to massage her back, place her hands in front of her rather than at her sides. Use your fingertips to massage her shoulders with small, circles and use the same small circular motion to massage down one side of the spine and up the other. Don’t press on the spine directly. Using your fingers like a soft rake, stroke down her back. A larger circular motion can be used on the buttocks.
Face and Head:
Use small circles and gentle strokes. Stroke from the bridge of the nose out over the cheeks, from the inside of the eyebrows to the outside, and massage her ears between your thumb and index finger. Use small circles to massage the jaw.
Holding her head with both hands, massage the scalp with your fingertips, but avoid the soft spot at the top of the head.
To end, start at her head and gently slide your hands down her body to her toes, then go back to her shoulders and stroke down her arms to her fingers.
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ABOUT THE EXPERTS
Kim Walls, MS is an internationally-recognized skincare expert focused on optimizing health through skincare. Leading child health advocacy groups and national media rely on Kim's clinical expertise to help parents navigate the often confusing world of natural skincare.