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Benefits of Infant Massage for Both Child and Caregiver

Benefits of Infant Massage for Both Child and Caregiver
Catherine McDowell, OTR/L, LMBT, E-RYT200/RYT500
March 27, 2017

Infant Massage

Infant massage is the process of rubbing an infant's muscles, intentionally stroking the infant in a manner that is designed specifically for them. Infant massage has been practiced for centuries. It was first documented in China as early as the 1700s, but used as an aspect of Ayurvedic medicine in India. Ayurvedic medicine is the sister science to yoga. It is a very ancient medical practice which has not changed in thousands of years. In South Asia, daily massage is given to all children by their mothers primarily. When studying in Thailand, that was definitely we saw. Massage is used as a preventative medicine, or as a daily ritual. You could just be walking down the street and get massage anytime throughout the day. Infant massage was not introduced to the U.S. until the late 1970's by Vimala McClure. She began trying to spread the message of the benefits. In the 1980s, there was a slow implementation, but it was beginning to be recognized primarily by parents of well-babies and encouraged by infant massage instructors. It was not until the '90s that there was a real expansion of infant massage when it was brought into hospital-based inpatient and outpatient programs, as well as community programs, which served families of at-risk or special needs children. As early intervention expanded, much more infant massage was brought in. Fathers also really started being encouraged to work with the infants. Where the mother was the primary caregiver and providing care for the infant, this was a great opportunity for fathers to find a deeper involvement.

Massage is a complementary alternative medicine. As occupational therapists, we can use CAMs as a precursor to our treatment. When working with the special populations, we need to clarify and create individualized massage approaches specific to the baby's unique sensory and nervous systems. We are not giving an adult massage to a baby. It is a different set of fundamentals altogether. Wonderfully as it began to spread, we really started to see some more research being done and documentation that really began to define infant massage, the benefits, and overall effects of it.


Massage Effects:

  • Circulatory and digestive systems 
  • Hormonal and immune systems
  • Coordination and balance
  • Learning and concentration
  • Muscular development and growth
  • Mind and body awareness

The skin is the largest organ of the body. Massage affects circulatory and digestive systems. It also works on hormone and immune systems. It is excellent for coordination and balance, working on sidedness and body awareness. It can help with learning and concentration. There was a study done showing that infant foot massage, done on a daily basis, improved reading skills later in life. It also affects muscular development and growth. This can be seen especially with the cerebral palsy population to help with spasticity, rigidity, and limited range of motion. Starting as an infant, providing massage very early on is just wonderful for that child's development. 

Infant Massage Helps Relieve:

  • Gas and colic
  • Constipation and elimination
  • Growing pains and muscular tension
  • Teething discomfort
  • Cramps

It can also help with certain issues such as gas and colic. In fact, the infant I am going to be showing you in a video has tremendous gas issues. Infant massage has helped him with this. I will also go through some special strokes for constipation. Growing pains and muscular tension can also be relieved with massage. Soothing the baby physically via massage has been shown to help relieve the discomfort of teething and cramping with digestive issues.

Relaxation Response:

  • Improved sleep patterns
  • Increased flexibility and muscle tone
  • Regulation of behavioral states
  • Being calm and being able to calm themselves
  • Reduction in stress hormones

The relaxation response improves sleep patterns. Babies who are given consistent massage are better able to self-soothe themselves. You see the calming effects on yourself, as the caregiver, providing the treatment.

Children with Special Needs

There are additional benefits from infant massage for premature infants, as well as disadvantaged mothers. We have seen cross-cultural studies that show babies, who are held, massaged, carried, nurtured, and rocked, and also breastfed, become less aggressive violent adults. They are better able to cope with stressful situations. They are able to automatically find a way to self-soothe themselves. They are more compassionate.

Recent research demonstrates the benefits for premature infants and the failure to thrive babies. It improves their ability to eat and digest. Children with asthma, diabetes, and certain skin disorders can also benefit. Positive effects on mothers with postpartum depression have also been documented. Their bonding improved with the infant, as well as their ability to feel support from the practitioners teaching them how to give the massage. Massage can also have benefits for teenage mothers. Those moms with substance use problems often feel inadequate, do not have the skills, or good parenting skills. With the support of being taught how to provide for their child, in this very intimate very supportive way, they do much better themselves in their coping skills. If their baby is having a hard day, they have a larger arsenal of ways to affect their child and help soothe their child.


Who do we want to involve? The first choice, of course, is going be the baby's mother and father, as well as grandparents, primary caregivers, and guardians. I have worked in infant massage for many years and did not have this knowledge and skills when my children were small. In the videos, you are going to see our new grandchild, Cason. He was born in October. We have worked with him using infant massage. My son uses it as well, and I see a difference with the interaction between him and Cason. This is a different relationship than I had with my own children. Of course, it also helps that I am not responsible. I get to provide this wonderful loving care, but do not have the burden of the overnight stay yet.

Equally important are those that care for these children outside of the home. This would include neonatal intensive care units, hospital settings, as well as school settings. In the United Cerebral Palsy program, we worked within the classroom. Every classroom had a time where infant massage was provided. Of course, in that setting, we stopped calling it infant massage after we got into preschool grades. However, the massage carried on throughout the classrooms, and throughout the developmental stages of the individuals.

Areas of Intervention

catherine mcdowell

Catherine McDowell, OTR/L, LMBT, E-RYT200/RYT500

Catherine McDowell has been an Occupational Therapist for over 20 years. After many years in the field of Occupational Therapy, first as a COTA, then OTR, becoming Director of Occupational Therapy at a nationally recognized United Cerebral Palsy program and the coordinator and teacher of the COTA program at Touro College in NY. Catherine took some time to explore a number of other health related fields, becoming a Licensed Massage & Bodywork Therapist, Yoga Therapist, RYT500/ E-RYT200 Yoga Alliance teacher, and Certified Holistic Health Practitioner. She has expanded her knowledge of complimentary healing practices, and now works to unite the theories and practices of a variety of ancient and culturally relevant medical practices with the practice of Occupational Therapy. Catherine is currently the Executive Director of June10 inc; a new concept in long-term residential substance abuse treatment program, which serves women, pregnant women and women with infants.

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