Infant Massage, Bonding, Baby-Wearing and Attachment – Part Four

I Massaged and Carried My Baby, and Continued My Research

I began massaging my baby shortly after he was born. I started with the traditional massage I had learned in India, and due to my research and my observations, I gradually added and subtracted elements that were backed up by professional research and because of my yoga teaching, my knowledge of the lymph system and the importance of including massage and movements to stimulate it. Lymph carries toxins through its own system and helps push the toxins out through the gastrointestinal system. It has no innate way to circulate on its own — movement of some kind helps circulate the lymph. The circulation of lymph is one of the foundations of yoga postures.

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After my first baby was born, I continued studying bonding and its elements, strapping him to my chest (in a new product, invented by an acquaintance of mind, called a “Snugli”) and heading off to the medical library several times a week. By that time I massaged my baby daily and, as much as possible, carried him in a front pack on my chest.

A Massage Routine that Could Be Taught

After massaging my baby every day for three months and continuing my research, I developed a massage routine that could be taught. My baby was “colicky” and so I used massage and yoga postures to help mature his gastrointestinal system. The routine I developed was always successful in reducing, then eliminating, the cries of colic. The massage helped move fecal matter and gas through the intestines and down through the colon, easily eliminated by the baby’s natural system. Using the strokes and movements I developed, a baby’s colic is relieved within two weeks. My Colic Relief Routine was included in the curriculum I was developing.

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Massage Speeds Myelination of the Brain and Nervous System

The natural sensory stimulation of massage speeds myelination of the brain and the nervous system. The myelin sheath is a fatty covering around each nerve, like insulation around electrical wire. It protects the nervous system and speeds the transmission of impulses from the brain to the rest of the body. The process of coating the nerves is not complete at birth, but skin stimulation speeds the process, thus enhancing rapid neural-cell firing and improving brain-body communication.

Research Finds (again) Infants Sensitive to “Pleasant Touch”

Cognitive neuroscientist Merle Fairhurst and colleagues of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, knew that previous studies with adults show that a specific type of touch receptor is activated in response to a particular stroking velocity, leading to the sensation of “pleasant” touch. They hypothesized that this type of response might emerge as early as infancy.

Strokes of Medium Velocity Work Best

Babies show unique physiological and behavioral responses to pleasant touch, which helps to cement the bonds between parent and child. For this study, Fairhurst and colleagues had infants sit in their parents’ laps while the experimenter stroked the back of the infant’s arm with a paintbrush. The results showed that the babies’ heart rate slowed in response to the brushstrokes when the strokes were of medium velocity; in other words, the touch of the medium-velocity brush helped to decrease their physiological arousal. The infants’ slower heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely correlated with the primary caregivers’ own self-reported sensitivity to touch. The more sensitive the caregiver was to touch, the more the infant’s heart rate slowed in response to medium-velocity touch.

Pleasant Touch Plays a Vital Role in Human Social Interactions

The researchers noted that this link between caregiver and infant could be supported by both “nurture” and “nature” explanations. “Social touch is genetically heritable and therefore correlated between caregivers and infants,” Fairhurst said. According to the researchers, the findings support the notion that pleasant touch plays a vital roles in human social interactions by demonstrating that the sensitivity to pleasant touch emerges early in human development.” 

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With Massage, Babies Experience Bonding in Their DNA

This study indicates that a baby who is massaged regularly, receiving “pleasant” touch, will experience bonding in the infant’s very DNA, and is therefore more likely to naturally bond with his/her own children later in life. It also reminds us to teach the strokes in a way that is “medium velocity”; that is, not too light, not too heavy. In my experience, most parents err on the side of too light a stroke, and often need to be encouraged to be a little more firm in their massage. When they know that their baby responds better to a firmer stroke, they gain confidence. I often asked them to think of a cat licking her kittens; the “stroke” is just right; the kittens rely on the mother’s strength to feel grounded and cared-for.

Research Suggests that Touch is as Important to Infants and Children as Eating and Sleeping

Dr. Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has said, “Our research suggests that touch is as important to infants and children as eating and sleeping.” She notes that loving touch triggers physiological changes that help infants grow and develop, stimulating nerves in the brain that facilitate food absorption and lowing stress hormone levels, resulting in improved immune system functioning. A report by the Families and Work Institutes states that during the first three years of life, the vast majority of connections between brain cells are formed They conclude that loving interaction such as massage can directly affect a child’s emotional development and ability to handle stress as an adult.

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Premature Babies Benefit Tremendously from Massage 

Studies with premature babies using the massage and holding methods in my book have demonstrated that daily massage is of tremendous benefit. In 1984, an instructor from my organization did an in-service talk at the University of Miami Medical Center. Dr. Tiffany Field became very interested in the effects of touch and massage on premature infants. She founded the Touch Research Institute after a groundbreaking study on premature babies and massage. Her research has shown remarkable results and eventually earned her the “Golden Goose Award,” which honors scientists whose federally funded research may not have seemed to have significant practical applications at the time it was conducted but has resulted in major benefits to society.

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The key discovery — that touch, in the form of infant massage, can vastly improve the outcome for babies born prematurely — has affected millions of lives around the world and saved billions of dollars in healthcare costs in the United States alone. In one study, twenty premature babies were massaged three times daily for fifteen minutes each. They averaged forty-seven percent greater weight gain per day, were more active and alert, and showed more mature neurological development than infants who did not receive massage. In addition, their hospital stay averaged six days less — a long time for parents, and thousands of dollars of care.

I included a chapter on premature babies in the manuscript for my book. Because of the support of a noted pediatrician, I was able to work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of a prominent Denver hospital. I did not touch or massage the babies myself, feeling it is important for parents to bond with their newborns, even in the NICU, with their babies often attached to cords, tubes, etc. I taught parents one-to-one how to use Touch Relaxation and Resting Hands, methods I developed to begin a skin-to-skin bond preceding massage.

The experience I had with these parents and babies was amazing. Regardless of their age or the amount of care they needed, every baby responded remarkably well to parents’ touch.

© 2014 Vimala McClure
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