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Massaging Your Newborn

Feb 18, 2022 | 2 Minutes Read

Taking time to massage your baby can be a gift for both of you. It is a time to focus on each other in an uninterrupted way. As you see the comfort and joy your baby gets from your strokes you will begin to feel that comfort and joy too.

Massage for a healthy newborn can start just as soon as you are ready. In the early days your baby will still be wanting to be held close and not feel too exposed. Have the environment warm and have a soft blanket to cover parts not being massaged. You may find it helpful to roll up a towel or two to tuck in around them to create extra support and a cocoon-like effect.

Newborn babies also have a need to ‘guard’ their soft parts such as their tummy, chest, inner thighs, armpits, palms of hands. Be mindful of this protectiveness and massage around these areas until they are more relaxed.

Newborn reflexes

Babies also come into the world with certain reflexes which you may inadvertently trigger during massage. These reflexes include:
  • Moro or startle reflex, which occurs when there is a sudden change in position or a loud noise. Your baby will throw out their arms and legs then pull them back with a bit of a tremble to their hands. This reflex starts to subside at around 3 months of age.
  • Rooting reflex, which occurs if the cheek is stroked or touched, especially when your baby is hungry. Your baby will turn their head towards the stimulus and open their mouth in attempt to find the breast or bottle to feed. This reflex begins to disappear around 3 months of age.
  • Grasp reflex, which is the reflex of their foot and hand. If you stroke the palm of the hand or the sole of the foot your baby will curl the finger or toes inward and close over your finger. This transitions from spontaneous to voluntary with growth and development.
  • Tonic neck reflex occurs when your baby’s head is turned to one side. It causes the arm on that side to stretch outwards, and the opposite arm to bend in at the elbow. This reflex begins to disappear at 5 to 6 months of age.
There is no cause for concern if you trigger these reflexes during massage except to understand why they happen and give your baby time to adjust or relax again when they do. For example, when you massage the soles of the feet and the toes curl, just allow time for them to relax before you do the next stroke.

How do I know if my baby is comfortable receiving massage?

Babies have a wide range of ways of telling us they are okay, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes, like with us, they have mixed feelings and will give us some positive and negative messages at the same time!

Stress signs include hiccups, not focusing on you, guarding, restlessness, irritability, disinterest, arching, straining, hungry cries, pain cries, sad cries, tired cries, and frightened cries.

Comfortable signs include happy vocal sounds like cooing, passing gas, glowing skin, relaxed breathing, bright-eyed, the ability to focus on you, stretching, sucking, and clasping their own hands or feet.

If your baby is giving strong stress signs, stop massaging them and respond to their needs. If they are giving mixed messages you can pause and reassure them before trying again. If the stress returns, stop. If it eases, then maybe reassurance was all that was needed—well done!

The only time you might ever massage your baby when they are crying is if they have colic and you think they might have a tummy ache from excessive gas. You can try rubbing their tummy or lower back to help. You might even get a little toot as they pass some gas.

Valuing your baby’s feelings, honoring them, and having soothing conversations with them will build trust and enhance your bond with them.

If you are interested in advancing your knowledge of baby massage and finding a Certified Infant Massage Instructor in your area go to www.infantmassageusa.org.

The information of this article has been reviewed by nursing experts of the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, & Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN). The content should not substitute medical advice from your personal healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations/diagnosis or treatment. For more advice from AWHONN nurses, visit Healthy Mom&Baby at health4mom.org.