“My mother had started searching for a local masseuse [even] before buying nappies and other accessories before my baby’s birth,” says Mona Mehta, a 28-year-old homemaker from Mumbai. “And this was not even a subject of debate at home.” Baby massage is a focal point of newborn care from ages, though some doctors say the other way round.
Mehta was confused and stressed because her pediatrician at a hospital who attended her baby during birth was clear in her instructions: no midwife or masseuse should be hired to massage the baby. But Mehta’s mother insisted otherwise.
Mehta says she had no choice but to go with what her mother wanted.
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Massage or no massage for babies?
Dr Vidya Gupta, senior consultant, pediatrics and neonatology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, acknowledges the age-old tradition followed in certain eastern countries and says massages are the bridges that enhance the bond between a mother and baby.
“These are times that are enjoyable and relaxing for both,” she says. But she adds that no harm is caused if the baby doesn’t receive a massage.
“Massages are beneficial for babies in multiple ways — provided they are done very gently and by the mother herself,” says Dr Sidharth Nayyar, chief neonatologist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals, Faridabad, Haryana. He says massaging the baby reduces maternal stress levels and improves the production of milk due to the release of endorphins (hormones that reduce stress and improve the sense of well-being) in the mother’s body. According to him, massages also reduce stress levels in the baby’s body through improved cortisol secretion (the stress-reducing hormone), and build their immunity.
Another significant benefit of massaging babies, according to Dr Nayyar, is hemodynamic stability (stable blood flow within the body). “The temperature inside the mother’s womb is warmer compared to the temperature outside,” he says. “This temperature difference after birth can cause fluctuations in the babies’ heart rate. Massages help normalise the blood pressure and regularise the baby’s heartbeat.”
Mothers vs masseuses
Dr Nayyar reiterates that a baby’s delicate body needs a very gentle massage, which a mother does best. “Masseuses use rigorous strokes and twist the limbs of the baby, which can bend their soft bones and damage tissues — especially in the first two months — causing complications like bowlegs,” he says. A harsh massage can also damage the delicate veins in babies and cause brain hemorrhage due to blood-pressure fluctuation, says Dr Nayyar.
Dr Gupta asks if mothers would trust their precious little ones with a stranger who may not treat their baby the same way as them and who also may be carriers of infection that may pass on to the baby on close contact. She also says that a massage should be enjoyable for the baby, and there is no point in the activity if the baby is continuously crying due to the harsh pressure given by the masseuse. “Moreover, this is the best way for a mother to spend quality time with her baby,” Dr Gupta says.
But Mehta, the homemaker from Mumbai, has a genuine concern regarding a mother massaging her baby. “The baby is so tiny and delicate,” she says. “I wasn’t confident even to hold her, leave aside massage her.”
Acknowledging the nervousness among new mothers while handling their babies, Dr Gupta says that is the reason a baby massage is not recommended until after three to four weeks of birth and advises mothers to attend classes run by hospitals that train them in how to massage and bathe babies. Dr Gupta says if the mother is unable to massage, the grandmother or another family member can help.
Which oil is the best for a baby massage?
Dr Nayyar advocates the use of virgin coconut oil at room temperature since it doesn’t react with the skin of the baby. He warns against the use of mustard or olive oil since they can irritate the skin and cause rashes. “Ghee is also used traditionally for massages for its vitamin D content, but there’s no evidence as to how much vitamin D is absorbed in the baby’s skin after the massage,” he says.
Dr Gupta says the type of oil depends on the weather. During summers or monsoons or in places where the climate is humid, it is best to use a thin oil (like coconut oil) that can be washed off easily. Olive or mustard oil can be used in winter.
But Dr Gupta warns that exposing the baby’s delicate skin to oil, soap and lotions increases the chances of rashes and prickly heat due to clogged pores if the oil or lotion is very sticky, or if the massage is rigorous.
Bathing after a massage
Dr Nayyar says a sponge bath is advisable for babies before the shedding of the umbilical cord and a tub bath after that. He offers the following tips for a bath:
- The water should be lukewarm
- The bath should be quick
- The fan should be switched off and windows closed
- The head should be washed last and patted dry first to avoid hypothermia (very low body temperature).
Babies enjoy a relaxing bath after a gentle massage just like adults and this significantly improves their sleep and makes them happier, says Dr Nayyar.