5 Good Reasons To Massage Your Baby—And How To Do It Safely

There are many surprising benefits to this easy practice.

June 8, 2017
baby massage

New parents can usually be found cradling their newborns while performing a combined "shush-rock-bounce"—a time-tested maneuver for quelling a newborn’s fussing. However, though perhaps less of a classic move, infant massage can offer multiple advantages for fussy babies and parents alike.

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“Babies often experience discomfort and varying degrees of fussiness until they are further along in their development,” explains pediatric sleep consultant Erica Desper, who often works with parents navigating the confusing and sleep deprived first weeks of their babies’ lives, when young digestive systems and circadian rhythms are still just forming.  “Massage offers parents a way to provide their baby with relief as well as supports that developmental process," says Desper. 

According to research, says Desper, both infants and parents benefit greatly from skin to skin contact. This can be particularly helpful advice for fathers working on their attachment with their infant. “More than a brief hug with clothing between them, massage is more of a prolonged bonding experience or ‘conversation’ between the two that involves a greater amount of skin contact and thus more thorough nerve stimulation and greater benefits,” Desper explains. 

Related: 5 Natural Baby Remedies For Common Ailments Every Parent Should Know

So while kisses and cuddles are essential to building strong physical bonds, massaging your baby goes further to create an even more therapeutic effect, and the proof isn’t just anecdotal. Studies have shown that infant massage stimulates the nervous, circulatory, respiratory, and immune systems. Here are five good reasons to try infant massage—and how to do it: 

baby massage
It reduces stress

Studies have shown that after receiving a massage babies have significantly reduced plasma cortisol concentrations, indicating decreased stress levels in response to massage. In addition, preterm infants exhibit fewer stress behaviors such as crying, grimacing, jerky arm or leg movements, startles, and finger flaring, after massage. 

Related: 6 Ways To Eliminate Hidden Toxins From Your Baby's Bedroom

baby massage for sleep
It promotes better sleep patterns

The holy grail for all new parents is the “good sleeper." Research shows that infants who receive a massage before bed time produce more of the sleep regulating hormone melatonin, which can help improve sleep patterns. A pre-sleep massage offers a strong time cue for infants, thereby enhancing coordination of the developing circadian system

Related: 6 Organic Store-Bought Baby Food Pouches That Are Just As Good As Homemade

baby massage pain relief
It offers relief from infant pains

Gas, constipation, colic, teething, and congestion—babies can’t tell us which of these common issues are causing their fussing, but massage has been said to help comfort and soothe an infant in discomfort from each of these ailments.

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baby massage weight gain
It can enhance weight gain

Massaging premature infants with oils using moderate pressure has been shown in studies to enhance average weight gain, leading to shorter hospital stays and thus lower hospital costs.

Related: 5 Science-Backed Tips For Feeding Your Baby

baby massage jaundice
It can improve symptoms of jaundice

Newborns with jaundice who receive massage therapy along with light therapy have lower bilirubin levels and improved bowel movement frequency, rather than infants treated with only light therapy. 

baby massage back
Science Photo Library - IAN HOOTON./getty
How to massage your baby

Position your baby and yourself so you can have eye contact and note how baby responds to your touch. ​“I like to emphasize that you really can’t do anything ‘wrong’ when massaging your baby,” says Desper, noting that infant massage technique is subjective. 

Use your baby's response to gauge your pressure. In general, firm is best and be sure to avoid stroking so lightly that it’s a tickle. When working on a baby’s tummy, always stroke in a clockwise fashion to keep things flowing in their natural direction. And, if the baby is naked, be prepared for bowel movements! If the baby has just eaten, you may want to wait until he or she has digested or at least avoid the tummy area.

Related: I Kept Traveling The World After I Had My Baby—Here Are My 5 Top Tips For Kid-Friendly Travel

If you are using a lotion rather than an oil, be aware that lotion has a cooling effect on the skin. You may need to cover baby with a blanket, exposing only the part of the body you are massaging, or warm the room. The full benefit of massage results when there is no friction involved so using a body oil is beneficial, notes Desper.

For very young infants, who prefer their parents natural scent (and may be overstimulated by oils with added fragrance) she recommends using a cold pressed, unscented fruit or vegetable oil such as grapeseed, safflower, sunflower, or olive oil because they are non-toxic and safe if ingested. 

Older babies, on the other hand, may benefit from scented aromatherapy oils. Here are 3 baby massage oils to try: 

California Baby Calming Massage Oil, from $16, Amazon.com 
A soothing and non-greasy blend of organic base oils including flaxseed and evening primrose oil infused with French lavender and clary sage essential oils to calm babies before nap or bed. 

SheaMoisture Raw Shea Butter Baby Oil Rub, from $10, Amazon.com 
This blend of shea butter and argan oil with a subtly aromatic combination of honeysuckle, chamomile, frankincense, and myrrh nurtures delicate baby skin, helps promote relaxation, and stimulates the nervous system.

Badger Balm Natural & Organic Baby Oil, from $14, Amazon.com 
A simple blend of calendula and Roman chamomile essential oils in a base of olive and jojoba oils soften and moisturize sensitive skin for all ages, while creating a calming and healing effect perfect for infants.