Baby massage
One study found that massages resulted in weight gain in preterm babies and reduction in bacterial infection. Image Credit: Unsplash

Three days into motherhood, UK expat Rhea Duffy had still not seen her son. “When I gave birth to my son, I basically nearly died,” she says in an interview with Gulf News. “I was in the Intensive Care Unit.”

She explains that after delivery, she bled a lot. “My uterus didn’t contract. The doctors told me that I was extremely lucky to pull through,” she says.

“So the bonding between me and Elliot…” she trails off as she recalls the tough few months. “I felt we hadn’t bonded very well at the start and I felt really, really lonely. It was quite a difficult time. So I was looking for baby groups – just trying ways [to bond with him].”

So, she says, when she heard about Louise Atkinson’s massage classes, she thought she’d give it a go. “And I felt like we started to connect more – we started to do the massages but the whole course helped,” she explains.

Rhea Duffy
Rhea Duffy and Elliot.

Atkinson, a certified doula and infant massage instructor at UAE-based Dou La La, explains that massage time is precious for both baby and mum. “When a baby is born, obviously that bond needs to be developed,” she says. And the best way to do that is through touch – which releases the ‘feel-good’ hormone oxytocin. “It coats everything with the feelings of love, feelings of value and feelings of respect,” she adds. “Those are the emotional benefits as well for a breastfeeding mother; she would produce more prolactin [protein responsible for lactation] for breastfeeding. And the physical benefits are weight gain in baby, reduction of colic, better sleep, digestion, greater resilience and muscle tone,” she adds. “It’s like a mini work-out.”


According to a study published in the ‘Journal of Clinical Neonatology’ in 2016, a study of babies found that those massaged three times a day for 15 minutes each time showed significant weight gain on day four and were discharged earlier than expected.

What is colic?
US-based Johns Hopkins Medicine explains that colic is a condition when a healthy baby cries for a very long time, for no obvious reason. It is most common during the first six weeks of life. It usually goes away on its own by age three to four months. Up to one in four newborn babies may have it.

That agitation of colic was something Duffy found relief to with the five-week massage programme. “It helped with his sleeping and really helped with his colic more than anything else. Like, I had tried the bicycle [exercise] routine for colic before but that wasn’t working well,” she explains.

We want to make sure that we are, you know, really nurturing babies. If they have their needs met … they will grow up into more confident and resilient children and adults.

- Louise Atkinson

The massage moments were also helpful for Duffy because they helped her connect with other mums and discover a way to bond with her baby in a relaxed state. “When you are with a baby, finding something to do with them to calm them and to keep them happy and to fill up your day is really hard at first. So we’d put him on a play mat but I’d also do a massage with him so that would really help him and it would really settle him before bed, so that was always really good,” she says.

Dr Shahid Gauhar, Specialist Peadiatrician and neonatologist Prime Hospital, says a massage is one of the three components of attachment and bonding. “It can provide a baby relief from daily stress or discomfort and constipation trapped gas. It also provides a baby and parents a form of loving communication and conveys affection and sense of security,” he adds. “The practice involves a combination of relaxing strokes, light kneading and gentle squeezing,” he adds.

Well rested baby

For British expat Ruth Arnott, the bonding time would come with additional relief. “It was always nice to have an hour a week to focus on our bond and Isla (now three) always slept amazingly after the classes. It also helped form our evening routine of a massage after bath time and before bed which was when we would switch off as a family and have some quality time together. My husband also attended a class and was familiar with the strokes which was lovely,” she says.

Ruth with her babies
Ruth Arnott with Isla and Finn.

“When Finn was born I didn’t hesitate in signing him up. It was even more important to me to carve out some time just for the two of us. Finn (now six months old) suffered more with his digestive system as a newborn and the colic routine was a big hit with him,” she adds.

Malin Ghavami, the Lead Midwife at Nightingale Health services and certified baby massage therapist, says the benefits of a massage go deep. It can not only sooth gastric pain but also help with any stress the newborn is feeling. “When babies are cared for gently and have their needs responded to, they are less likely to react as strongly to stressful situations and produce less of the hormone cortisol - massage is a way of responding to many needs,” she explains.

When babies are cared for gently and have their needs responded to, they are less likely to react as strongly to stressful situations and produce less of the hormone cortisol - massage is a way of responding to many needs.

- Malin Ghavami

For Indian mum Jia Lokwani, whose second baby, Ryca, was born pre-term, a massage has meant both emotional and physical benefits. “A massage increases the sense of smell in the babies and most importantly, they feel hungry after a good massage. And don’t forget the long sleep, which is a must for good health, especially in newborns. My girl enjoys her massages a lot, she breastfeeds well, sleeps well and is fresh once she wakes up,” she says.

Baby sleep
Baby Ryca gets a good nap after her massage.

An Asian concept

It was Vimala McClure, author of ‘Infant Massage, A Handbook for Loving Parents’, who on a trip to India discovered the benefits of massage in the 1970s. “She realised that many people in South Asia were actually massaging their babies; it's not quite a western concept,” explains Atkinson. She calls her the founder of the baby massage movement. Since then of course there have been many studies on the benefits of massage.

“According to a study done by Tiffany Field, for instance, massages resulted in weight gain in preterm babies up to 50 per cent and reduction in bacterial infection. I think the emphasis would be that the skin is our largest organ. So you know, we want to make sure that we are, you know, really looking after that and nurturing that touch. And as a result, if those babies are, if they have their needs met … they will grow up into more confident and resilient children and adults,” explains Atkinson.

When should I massage my baby?
US-based Mayo Clinic explains that certain times may be better for a massage than others. “Massaging your baby too soon after a feeding might cause your baby to vomit — so wait at least 45 minutes after a feeding. Also pay close attention to your baby's mood. If your baby has a steady gaze and appears calm and content, he or she might enjoy a massage. If your baby turns his or her head away from you or becomes stiff in your arms, it might not be the best time for a massage.”

Pressure points

Ever wondered how much pressure to put on a baby’s little body when you are massaging? You aren’t alone. “When parents are massaging their babies who are born full term, they would use a medium or firm pressure. In neonatal, obviously, that's a bit more difficult, especially if they're in an incubator. So there's a lot more kangaroo care and also resting hands, which have proven benefits,” explains Atkinson.

What is kangaroo care?
According to the US-based mum-and-child non-profit research firm March of Dimes, “Kangaroo care means holding your diapered baby on your bare chest (if you're the father) or between your breasts (if you're the mother). Be sure to put a blanket over your baby's back to keep him warm.” This has been proven to help a mum lactate, reduce stress and help bond with the baby.

As for the routine, says the massage instructor, “We go from legs and feet, right up to a full body massage, which would be legs and feet tummy colic routine.”

Ghavami concludes: “Parents and babies are biologically designed to bond with each other after birth. This bond is important so that the mother accepts the baby and so that the baby’s needs are met, during the massage you are making eye-contact with an awake baby and promoting a very easy, relaxed and joyful way of bonding and connection between mother/father and baby.”

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