Updated: Jul 3, 2021
Baby massage: actually helpful or merely crunchy-granola hype? Short answer: believe the hype, baby massage has many proven benefits!
Numerous studies over the past few decades have touted the benefits of baby massage for everything from “the elimination and reduction of colic and wind" to "neonatal physical development such as weight, length, head circumference“ (Chen et al., 2011). While careful review of the literature suggests that the influence on a full-term baby’s growth is limited, massage has been associated with improved mother-infant interaction, decreased stress hormones, faster reduction of jaundice, improved sleep, and less crying (Underdown et al. 2006; Chen et al. 2011). Baby massage may be particularly beneficial for preterm infants: "Preterm newborns who received 5-10 days of massage therapy showed a 21-48% greater increase in weight gain and hospital stays of 3-6 days less than control infants” (Field et al., 2010).
Yay for baby massage! You now may be wondering: How do I perform this miraculous baby rub down? According to a systematic review of 23 baby massage studies (Underdown et al. 2006), the recommended massage duration, frequency, and technique varies. Most studies performed 8 to 15 minutes of massage for 1 to 3 times per day, and while the recommended massage pressure varied, "gentle" is a term frequently used. Use of baby oil for massage was also suggested in numerous studies. (In case you were wondering, baby massage using baby oil did not cause an increase in skin rashes (Chen et al., 2011)). Most studies involved massage of the whole body using specific techniques. An oft quoted protocol from Field and colleagues (Field et al., 1986) proceeds as follows:
Massage baby for 15 minutes in three phases.
First five minutes: Tactile stimulation of baby lying prone (face down). ~2 strokes per second "over each region in the following sequence: (1) from the top of the head to the neck, (2) from the neck across the shoulders, (3) from the upper back to the waist, (4) from the thigh to the foot to the thigh on both legs, and (5) from the shoulder to the hand to the shoulder on both arms."
Second five minutes: Kinesthetic stimulation of baby lying supine (face up). Flex and extend each arm, each leg, then both legs together. Movement for each should last 10 seconds and be repeated 6 times.
Last five minutes: Repeat the first five minute tactile stimulation of baby lying prone (face down).
Lastly, a word of warning - baby massage may end up causing infectious baby giggles! (Disclaimer: I'm not using the protocol outlined above in this video).
Chen J, Sadakata M, Ishida M, Sekizuka N, Sayama M. Baby massage ameliorates neonatal jaundice in full-term newborn infants. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2011 Feb;223(2):97-102.
Underdown A, Barlow J, Chung V, Stewart-Brown S. Massage intervention for promoting mental and physical health in infants aged under six months. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2006 Oct 18;(4):CD005038.
Field T, Diego M, Hernandez-Reif M. Preterm infant massage therapy research: a review. Infant Behav Dev. 2010 Apr;33(2):115-24.
Field TM, Schanberg SM, Scafidi F, Bauer CR, Vega-Lahr N, Garcia R, Nystrom J, Kuhn CM. Tactile/kinesthetic stimulation effects on preterm neonates. Pediatrics. 1986 May;77(5):654-8.
Thank you to Jenna for submitting this question to Momma Ph.inD!