How to Give Your Baby/Child a Massage

Can you even imagine the impact physical touch has on a baby? Research over and over again demonstrates the power of human touch on development. It’s been a dream of mine to become an infant massage instructor because of my strong passion for touch and baby development.  As an OT, I find it extremely beneficial for children with various needs.  I wrote this as if it’s for babies but I have to admit I still do it on my toddler.  Many of these strokes and benefits are great for a child of almost any age.

Massage is beneficial for:

  • Muscle relaxation
  • Promoting sleep
  • Increasing digestion
  • Body awareness
  • Emotional connection and attachment between caregiver and infant
  • Tactile stimulation/can reduce or prevent tactile hypersensitivites
  • Visual stimulation/facial attention/eye to eye contact
  • Auditory stimulation/Communication (often parents talk and communicate with baby during massage)
  • Improved blood circulation
  • Pain relief (i.e. teething!)
  • Establishing routines
  • Relieve Colic
  • Improved lymphatics
  • Reducing edema

Massage stimulates many of the bodies systems, including, the nervous system, immune system, digestive system, respiratory and circulatory systems.

When to do massage

Really when you do the massage is up to you.  However, my recommendation is that it be done as a part of your bedtime routine.  After bath before putting on pajamas is a great time.  If you don’t do a bath, it’s still a great thing to incorporate into a bedtime routine.  There are particular strokes that are intended to be alerting and others to be calming.  Obviously if you are doing it before bed, you would want to choose calming strokes.  In the morning before getting dressed might be a great time to do some of the alerting strokes.

What oils/lotions to use

My number one recommendation is coconut oil, an extra virgin organic version is great (This is what we use. I purchase it at Costco).  There are many benefits to using coconut oil and will maybe write a post just on the benefits of coconut oil.  Make sure that whatever oil you choose is something edible so that if they get it on their hands (or feet) and then into their mouth that it’s completely safe.  At bedtime, I like to add some lavender oil into the coconut oil at bedtime.  I apply it to the feet and finish with a little on the chest, both areas which are covered by my children’s pajamas.  I never put it on the hands, which could get into the mouth.  If you choose another edible oil, just be sure to avoid nut oils due to possible allergies. It may also be helpful to test out whatever oil you choose on a small part of your baby’s skin before applying to the whole body in case your child does have an allergic reaction.

Where do I give the massage

Definitely choose a place where both of you are comfortable and will be for the time of the massage.  When I’m doing it before bed, I like to do it on the baby changing table.  Another benefit to this is that I give the massages with the baby completely naked.  Thus if we have any sort of accident, we don’t have to worry about it getting on anything it shouldn’t.  Make sure that the temperature of the room is comfortable and warm, and sometimes it’s also helpful to keep your baby slightly covered with a blanket throughout the massage (cover his legs while massage his arms).  This is especially helpful keeping your baby warm after a bath. Make sure to pay attention to sounds and lighting as well.  Some calm music might be beneficial.  Be sure to avoid fluorescent lighting which can put off a slight flicker.

How do I give the Massage

Now to the fun stuff!

  1. Hello Baby! I always start with my hands still on the baby’s chest.  It’s helpful to ask the baby if you can give them a massage prior to placing your hands on them.  It let’s them know what’s going to happen.  Listen/read your baby’s body language.  If they communicate to you that they don’t want it, respect that.  Additionally, remain aware of what your baby is communicating throughout the massage.  Never force a stroke if your baby appears uncomfortable.  Establish some eye contact, and non-verbally communicate that your baby has your attention.  You can talk to your baby and tell them what’s going to happen.  I love to use this time, as well as the rest of the massage to speak affirmations, prayers, words of wisdom, etc. over my baby.massage (1 of 24)
  2. Warm Up. Generally, I’ve applied the coconut oil to my hands and want to distribute it around the body and give a quick warm up.  I’ll lightly stroke my hands in an upward motion from the chest up towards the shoulders and down the arms.
  3. Order of Massage. I typically start with the CHEST and then move to ARMS. Then FACE. (I don’t ever start with the face. Some babies won’t tolerate face till the end.  I like to use coconut oil only on the face and thus after I do the face, I add the lavender oil into the coconut oil in my hand for the rest of the body.) I then do LEGS and finish with the BELLY. I rarely do the BACK but you are more than welcome to.
  4. Massage Strokes. You can do all the strokes or pick just a few.  It’s within the freedom of what you and your baby agree upon.

Calming Strokes: strokes that move away from the body (from shoulders/hips to ankles/wrists tend to be calming).   Additionally, strokes that go with the direction of hair growth tend to be calming. Provide a firm, consistent, rhythmic pressure and stroke pattern. 

  • Indian Milking: Form a C shape with your hands.  Start near the hips/shoulders and stroke down the extremity towards the feet/hands.  Always have a hand in contact with the baby, thus one hand will be supporting at the ankle/wrist while the other is providing the stroke.  Once you stroke down, the opposite hand then returns to the hip/shoulders and strokes down the other side of the extremity.massage (2 of 24)
  • Back and Forth: With baby lying face down horizontally across your lap, place both hands together at the top of the back. Slide your hands back and forth from the shoulders to the bottom, moving your hands in opposite direction.massage (24 of 24)
  • Swooping: With one hand on the buttocks and one at the base of the neck, glide your hand from the neck down towards to buttocks.  Provide this same stroke from the buttocks down to the ankles.massage (21 of 24)massage (22 of 24)
  • Squeeze and Twist: Place both hands side by side in the shape of a C near the hips/shoulders. Move them towards the hand/foot while twisting hands in the opposite direction.massage (3 of 24)
  • Open Hand: Hold the baby’s hand in your hands and use both thumbs simultaneous to massage outwardly to stretch and massage the palms.massage (4 of 24)
  • Fingers and toes: Gently squeeze and rolleach finger and toe, moving away from the body.massage (5 of 24) massage (8 of 24)
  • Top of the foot: use one thumb after the other to provide pressure on the top of the foot from the ankle towards the toes.massage (7 of 24)
  • Ankle/Wrist circles: with your forefinger and thumb on the opposite side of the joint, provide slow rhythmic circlesmassage (6 of 24)
  • Chest Open Book: with thumbs together in the middle of the chest, slowly move up towards chin and then out towards armpits, and then moving down along sides of the body and back to beginning point while maintaining consistent pressure. It is a heart like movement.massage (10 of 24)
  • Integration: With both hands on the body, move from the chest down to the toes. Good for the beginning and the end of the massage.

Alerting Strokes: strokes that are fast, irregular or light tend to be alerting or facilitating.  Those that move in the opposite direction of hair growth tend to be alerting. Strokes that move toward the body (from ankles/wrists toward shoulders/hips tend to be alerting).  

  • Small Circles over the back: create small circles moving along both sides of the spine.massage (20 of 24)
  • Combing: With your finger tips touching the back and the hand in a sort of raised, spider like position, quickly “comb” the baby’s back from the neck to the buttocks.  This stroke should become lighter and lighter, creating a feather like stimulation in the end.massage (23 of 24)
  • Swedish Milking: Same as Indian milking, however, move from wrist/ankle towards hip/shoulder.
  • Foot Press: provide gentle pressure with the thumbs to the bottom of the foot, moving from the heel towards the toes.massage (9 of 24)
  • Rolling: With the baby’s arm or legs between your hands, roll your hands back and forth as you move up and down the extremity.massage (19 of 24)

Strokes Specific for the Belly (when performing belly strokes, you may want to make sure you have additional towels, etc. in case the massage effectively helps clear the bowels.)

  • I Love You: Begin by making a vertical I like stroke on the left side of the stomach. Form an L on the baby’s belly moving from the Right upper corner, across the top of the belly and then down the L side of the belly.  Stroke in an upside down U stroke moving from the Left to Right. (A side note: these are the baby’s Left and Right, not yours)massage (11 of 24) massage (12 of 24) massage (13 of 24) massage (14 of 24)
  • Paddling: With your hands flat, using the outer pinky side of your hand, stroke it down along the belly. Rotate your hands in a rhythmic fashion.
  • Sun & Moon: Use one hand to form a rainbow arc across belly, moving from left to right.  The other hand forms small circles in a clockwise rotation.  Do both movements simultaneously.massage (15 of 24)
  • Bubble Search: Walling your finger tips from the left to right at the height of the belly button.

Strokes Specific for the Face

  • Down the side of the nose: using either your thumbs or forefingers begin on the bridge of the nose near the eyebrows. With moderate pressure stroke down towards the base of the nose with your fingers simultaneously.massage (17 of 24)
  • Smiling face: With thumbs placed together under the nose, simultaneously move thumbs towards the cheek and down towards the chin and back.
  • Circles around the jaw: create small circles with your fingertips around the jawline. This should be very gentle.
  • Jawline Stroke: begin with fingertips surrounding the ear and simultaneously stroke down along jawline towards the center of jaw.
  • Eyebrow Stroke: Move from the middle of the eyebrows, stroking along the brows out towards the sides of the face.
  • Ear Rolling: beginning at the top of the ears, roll your fingers along the edge of the ear down towards the ear lobe.massage (18 of 24)

When should I not give a Massage

If your baby has a medical condition, always discuss with your physician prior to giving a massage.  Some examples of when to avoid a massage before discussing with a physician would be an acute infection, cardiac or circulatory conditions, orthopedic disorders, or edema related to an injury or heart failure.  Open wounds, surgeries, or other skin conditions would require consult prior to giving a massage.  Hemophilia, hematoma, and some cancers are also contraindicated for giving a massage.  If your child is receiving PT or OT services, it would be helpful to discuss massage techniques that would be beneficial for your child in particular, specifically in regards to hypotonia or hypertonia.

If your baby is upset or distraught, it is best not to give the massage.  You want this to be an enjoyable experience for your baby.  Sometimes you can talk to your baby and begin with the hands on the chest pressure stroke.  If the child calms during this stroke, he may find some calming from continuing the massage. Please read your baby’s cues carefully.  It is extremely important to not overwhelm your baby’s sensory and nervous systems.

Other Tips

  • Watch out for hair whirls.  They can be very disorganizing if stroked over.
  • Wait at least 30 minutes after a feeding to provide massage strokes to the belly.

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