Infant massage: How (and why) to do it


A friend of mine gave me a pile of books to read before Carys was born, and Vimala McClure’s Infant Massage: A handbook for loving parents (*affiliate link) was among them.  I was so focused on my birth plan at the time that I set it aside until after she was born.  We were pretty busy the first few weeks with Alvin’s family here and various other visitors coming by to meet the new little lady, but when Alvin went back to work after three weeks I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands and not much to do to fill it with other than Carys’ napping and eating.


diaper blowout

In those days we didn’t bathe her on a regular routine, and instead just did it whenever there was a diaper blow-out (of which there were quite a few), so it was nice to massage her in the afternoons and then bathe the oil off her afterward.

There are seven chapters of background information in the book that you could probably skim over fairly quickly, much of which has information that is definitely not compatible with a RIE approach to parenting, and even seems more than a little sensationalist:

“I have received countless letters from parents saying infant massage changed their entire life as a family, and their children turned out to be lively, creative, inquisitive, secure, intelligent, social, loving, humanitarian human beings.  Authoritarian advisors neglect to mention that parents all over the world have naturally responded with love to their babies…and that if you read the biographies of terrorists, serial killers, and cruel dictators, you will invariably find neglected or authoritarian childhoods” (p.3)


“…carrier packs soothe babies by allowing them to stay warm and feel, as well as listen to, their parent’s heartbeat.  Heartbeat sounds that have been shown ton increase appetite and thus weight gain, to regulate sleep and respiration, and to reduce crying by fifty percent” (p.133)

and there’s also a very odd chapter giving general advice to teen parents.  But these things aside, there is nothing in RIE that is against spending focused time bonding with babies through touch, especially if it is done in a respectful way as McClure advocates.  Indeed, spending focused quality time balanced with time apart (rather than the constant contact that McClue prefers) would be very RIE-compatible.  We didn’t know about RIE yet when I started massage; I honestly mainly did it because it seemed like something that could enhance my bonding with Carys and that also gave me something to do that didn’t seem as though it could be harmful – even if it didn’t result in Carys getting “ahead in both neurological development and weight gain” (p.8).

Chapter Eight (finally) starts to get into “How to massage your baby.”  One key point is to always request permission from the baby: say “May I give you a massage now?” while rubbing oil in the palms of your hands to warm it up.  The first time you do this baby has no idea what is about to happen, of course, but over time they really do pick it up – one mum in one of my Baby & Me classes said that her baby would start laughing and kicking every time she would rub her hands together with the oil.  McClure says that the baby says ‘no’ by throwing hands up in a guarding motion, turning her head away, and fussing.  In this case, try changing the environment a little (warm up the space; cover her with a blanket) and ask again.  The idea is to introduce the idea from a very early age that the baby has control over her body and who touches it, and that she has the right – even as an infant – to refuse touch that she doesn’t want.


bring on the massage


McClure also recommends starting with baby’s feet and legs, as the “least vulnerable parts of [the] baby’s body” (p.74).  Actually, Carys never really liked me moving much beyond her feet and legs; she would tolerate a gentle tummy rub but never enjoyed her arms, hands or face being massaged – so I would instead spend extra time on her feet and legs, which she always loved.  Mostly I would do it with a diaper off (and with an extra burp cloth under her butt to catch the inevitable dribbles), but sometimes it was just easier to keep the diaper on.

McClure’s book gave enough photos and instructions for me to be able to figure out the different strokes she recommends, but if you don’t have time for the book then I can recommend this video as the best complete overview I’ve found.  The instructor is a Certified Infant Massage Instructor, a certification which is granted by Vimala McClure’s organization Infant Massage USA.  This one doesn’t cover all the strokes, though, so if your baby particularly likes leg and foot massages there are some additional strokes demonstrated in this video (not sure why they don’t go any further up the body). This video (in Spanish, but you don’t really need to understand the words to get the benefit of the technique instruction) covers the whole body and is helpful for learning some different strokes once you have the basics down from the English language videos.

We did the massages once or twice a week from when Carys was about four weeks through four months; we never got to the point where she would visibly salivate when I started rubbing the oil between my hands, though.  I went back to work at four months and at the same time we had to start a nighttime bedtime routine involving a bath because she was no longer happy to nurse almost to sleep and then settle herself, which made oily massages during the day rather impractical.  Then she got pretty wriggly for a few months and wouldn’t even sit still for a diaper change, and I figured our massage days were behind us.


bath time


But one day she was lying on the sofa having her bedtime milk and I offered her a foot rub, which she gladly accepted.  Now pretty much every night she settles down with her milk under her blanket, surrounded by her ‘friends,’ and then lifts her feet up and makes grunting noises until I start rubbing them.  It’s a pretty nice way to spend fifteen minutes at the end of the day.

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