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msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/12/2003 12:42:44 PM ET 2003-12-12T17:42:44

Strollers are double-parked in the hall outside, and 16 moms, one dad and 17 babies have packed a playroom at the 14th Street Y in New York City on a recent afternoon. They’re about to take part in a class on one of the latest trends in baby care — the ancient practice of infant massage. Babies who get a daily rubdown sleep better, grow faster and are less fussy, research suggests. As a result, their parents tend to be more relaxed and rested, too.

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As evidence mounts, the medical establishment’s acceptance of infant massage is growing. It is becoming standard care in neonatal intensive care units and increasingly being offered as part of childbirth education. State health departments and hospitals are building infant massage into early intervention programs designed to prevent child abuse and neglect.

And the number of trained infant massage instructors in the United States has soared from 2,500 to nearly 6,000 over the past five years, according to the International Association of Infant Massage.

While increased interest in baby massage is a new phenomenon in the U.S., it has been practiced for centuries in many cultures around the world, including some in India, China and South America. “We call it ‘anointing’ back where I’m from,” says Samantha Hunte, an infant massage instructor in New York City who grew up in Guyana. “It’s all about finding time to communicate with your child,” says Hunte, whose mother massaged her and taught her to massage her little sister when the time came. Recently, Hunte taught her sister to massage her own son.

Vimala McClure, author of “Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents,” is largely responsible for popularizing baby massage in the West. The U.K. native who now resides in Boulder, Colo., learned about infant massage while working in an orphanage in India. When her son was born in 1976, she began massaging him every day with a series of strokes based on Indian and Swedish techniques. Then she started teaching the routine to other parents, and then to instructors. In the mid-80s, McClure and her colleagues founded the International Association of Infant Massage, which now has chapters in 31 countries.

How it helps
The scientific case for the medical benefits of infant massage began with a landmark study of premature infants published in 1986. Preemies given a series of gentle strokes and limb manipulations gained nearly 50 percent more weight than infants who didn’t receive such therapeutic touch, Dr. Tiffany Field and her colleagues found. The massaged babies also went home from the hospital an average of six days earlier, for a savings of about $3,000 per child.

Field, the founder and director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School, speculates that massage may hasten weight gain in preemies by promoting the release of insulin and other hormones that allow the babies to get more energy from food.

Field started down this research path when her own daughter was born prematurely. At 28, “she’s now taller and smarter than me, and I think that’s testimony that massage is a good thing,” Field says.

Field went on to study healthy, full-term babies, and found massage helped them sleep better and reduced their irritability. Massaged babies also performed better on infant IQ tests and were more alert and attentive.

Among other effects, she says, massage lowers levels of stress hormones and reduces both heart rate and blood pressure, resulting in a more restful state.

Time for bonding
And in today’s busy world where both working and stay-at-home parents seem more stressed than ever, a daily massage provides a quiet time for both parent and child to unwind and relax. “One of the benefits is that it forces the mothers to slow down, which a lot of mothers in our culture have trouble doing,” says Jane Kornbluh, the infant massage instructor at the Y, formally known as the Sol Goldman Y of the Educational Alliance.

David Friedman  /  MSNBC.com
Instructor Jane Kornbluh uses a doll to demonstrate infant massage technique.
By slowing down, she adds, moms — and dads — can get to know their babies better and build a foundation for communication that lasts long after infancy ends.

In one of her recent classes at the Y, Kornbluh demonstrates on a baby doll as she leads parents through a series of gentle yet firm strokes of the feet and legs, belly, chest, arms, face and back. Some babies gaze at their moms with rapt attention, returning her smiles and gurgling with pleasure. Some fuss, some wail, others just twist around to check out their surroundings.

If an infant cooperates, a massage may last upwards of 20 to 30 minutes. But the most important thing, Kornbluh tells the parents, is not to just get through a series of strokes or to finish the massage. It’s to use this time to listen to the baby and learn how to read his or her cues, how he or she says “I’m tired,” “I’m hungry,” “This feels good” or “I don’t like this.”

Experts say better understanding a baby’s needs helps cut off the vicious cycle that can occur when a baby gets upset, the parent gets upset and the family spirals out of control.

“Crying is the No. 1 thing that will tick parents off and lead to abuse, crying that cannot be relieved,” notes Dr. Ruth L. Jenkins of St. Anthony’s Medical Center in St. Louis. Jenkins runs an educational program for parents that incorporates infant massage instruction and is designed to reduce family stress.

“I think that the real potential of infant massage is that it sets up a dynamic between the parent and child that facilitates or promotes conversing and communication and encouragement,” says Dr. Steve Berman, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado in Denver and past-president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Berman and others even argue that infant massage has the power to help cure societal ills by building such loving relationships.

Touch-deprived kids?
There’s a lot of violence and aggression in American culture, Field says, and “touch deprivation” may be partly responsible. Field and her colleagues recently conducted a study that found U.S. preschoolers and adolescents got less physical affection from their parents than French kids, and were less affectionate and more aggressive on the playground than their European peers. Infant massage, Field says, could be one way to get touch back into our culture.

On the individual level, it’s clear that parents who massage their babies have fun doing it — and their babies enjoy it too.

In her early weeks, Jai Griem’s baby daughter, Katherine, was gassy and fussy. Griem’s mother, who was visiting from India, suggested massage. Katherine, now about 4 months old, gets a massage almost every day, and Griem says it’s eased her irritability and helped her sleep better. What’s more, the Brooklyn mom says, it’s fun. “I love it because she likes it so much,” she says. “I smile at her, we have a lot of eye contact doing it. It’s nice because it’s just the two of us with no distractions.”

Dads are getting into the act as well. “It’s fun to hang out with him, it’s fun to see how happy he gets,” says Mark Zimmerman of Manhattan, who massages his 5-month-old son, Jack, every day after he gets home from work. Zimmerman says he plans to continue Jack’s rubdowns as long as he can. “There’s no reason I wouldn’t, honestly, until he says ‘Dad, I’m 15 years old, leave me alone.’”

And while massage gets tougher once a baby learns to crawl and then walk — and would probably be anathema to most teens — parents can revisit it from time to time as their children get older, says Kornbluh, perhaps when they are ill or just need some extra TLC.

Anne Harding is a New York City-based health journalist and new mom.

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