Baby massage is a practice that has been used for centuries in many diverse cultures for healing and development. We often think of massage in terms of physical therapy or as a pampering experience, but it’s much more than that. The benefits of skin contact for the brain—especially in infants—is remarkable. In fact, you could say it is vital. And the science backs this up. Jerusalem-based massage therapist Udi Rothstein tells us more.
The Brain-Body Connection
Drawing on the findings of scores of scientists and psychologists, Ashley Montagu demonstrates the importance of tactile experience (or its lack) for the healthy behavioral development of the individual. In his book Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, he shows that many adult health and wellbeing problems originate in the lack of proper skin stimulation by parents during the child’s early years.
Udi elaborates: “Skin sensitivity is one of the earliest developed and most fundamental functions of the body and the first means of communication between parent and child. It develops synchrony—the shared interaction between mother and infant—which allows us to create, and later in life identify, healthy social attachments.”
Touch creates actual chemical changes in the infant and parent. Skin contact involves the immune system, the stress system and the oxytocin system. Sensory stimulation speeds the process of coating the nerves, enhancing rapid neural firing and improving brain-body communication. Many OTs say that baby massage therefore reduces the necessity of therapies when older.
A recent study performed by Dr. Ruth Feldman at the Center for Developmental, Social and Relationship Neuroscience in Herzliya demonstrated the importance of touch for human infants. Here, preemies who received “kangaroo” or skin-to-skin care from their mothers had a better connection with their mother, better adjustment abilities, lower cortisol levels and lower ADD rates as measured at seven points in time—over the following ten years!
Aiding the Immune System
There is a plethora of health benefits associated specifically with infant massage, too. Research conducted by Miami’s Touch Research Institute shows that massage stimulates the immune system, in turn increasing an infant's resistance to infection. Massage also results in enhanced growth in preemies (an average of 47% greater weight gain per day!), decreased autoimmune problems, increased lung function, and decreased glucose levels in infants with diabetes. In addition, hospital stay averaged six days less.
It is argued that in earlier times before there was a pill available for every ailment, massage functioned as an immunity booster for infants. Today, in our medication-centric world, massage has been underused, but it remains an effective and powerful—not to mention natural—technique for harnessing the body’s own defences against disease.
Who doesn’t want their infant to be the next child genius? We wait eagerly for every milestone in our child’s development and spend hundreds if not thousands of shekels on toys that claim to develop babies’ brains. But massage is proven to be one of the most effective techniques for boosting child development. This is why the kupot cholim have started subsidizing massage and why they now offer it in hospitals.
Research neuroscientist Dr. Lise Eliot writes that “regular, early massage may have important cognitive benefits for babies of all gestational ages…. Children show lower anxiety and stress levels, better mood, improved sleep patterns, and higher levels of attentiveness when treated to a daily massage by their parents.”
Udi agrees: “The outcomes are astounding in terms of bonding, communication, and development. The child requires fewer therapies in the long and short term, and develops better and faster. I witnessed this in my own children that I did massage with – they reached developmental milestones much more quickly.”
The loving interaction between parent and child—particularly touch, our very first developed sense—is essential for our babies’ brains to develop.
Most brain growth and development occurs after birth, particularly in the regions controlling language, emotion and abstract thought. Synapses develop extremely quickly
during a child’s early years; cells connect through new experiences and the amount of stimulation received by age three dictates the amount of growth in each region of the brain.
Udi explains: “A signal is sent to our baby’s brain when his or her skin is touched, telling it to make connections and grow. Therefore it’s so important to start as early as possible. With massage, a baby gets the right stimulation, input and interaction for optimal brain development.”
When you watch baby massage being practiced, you’ll see the baby’s tension being instantly released. Massage communicates strength, maternal confidence and love with just enough pressure to be comfortable, soothing, and stimulating.
Udi Rothstein is a Jerusalem-based massage therapist who specializes in baby massage. She offers workshops for mothers to give them the confidence and techniques to effectively massage their babies themselves.
Udi can be reached at 050-417-0907.