— Vimala McClure
I first learned about the ancient art of infant massage while I was studying to be a yoga teacher and working in an orphanage in Northern India in 1973, when I was 21 years old. I made a connection in my mind observing the children there.
I loved the children, who always came rushing to me, wanting to hug me, to sit on my lap, and for me to sing with them. I noticed that all the children I saw, both in and out of the orphanage, were delightful. They were open and relaxed and always smiling. They played together — pretend, like all kids — and they also spent a lot of time holding hands in a circle, dancing and singing. In spite of their extreme poverty, they were happy, they had a relaxed way of being in the world, and I often saw both boys and girls walking around with a baby on their hip. I remembered observing children playing in U.S. playgrounds; their games were often games, they gathered in little bunches, bullied the kids. They fought for time on the monkey bars. So different!
One night, after class, I was walking around the compound, looking up at the stars,which were so bright and different from what I saw in America. I approached the sleeping quarters of the children, and peeked in. A girl, about 12 years old, was massaging a baby and singing. I waited until she was finished, and went in to talk to her. Luckily, I knew some Bengali, which was her language. She told me that massage, especially for babies, was traditional. I asked her if she could show me how to do it. She happily agreed, and allowed me to massage the baby, who was so relaxed and sleepy. I learned how to use oil, warm my hands, and do each stroke. The baby connected with me immediately. She gazed into my eyes, smiled, and drifted off to sleep.
I was profoundly touched by this experience. I thought about it a lot. I began to think that perhaps Indian children were so kind, inclusive, responsible for the younger ones and happy in their play, because they had been massaged regularly as babies. Massage is a normal thing in Indian families, especially in the villages and towns where ideas have not yet influenced them. Women usually live with their husband’s family; when pregnant, their mothers-in-law massage them every day. After giving birth, they learn to massage their babies as part of their everyday life.
I returned to the U.S., and spent a couple of years researching the power of touch. I found a boat-load of studies on mammals — how they bond with their young, the licking, grooming, and massage that make up the bonding process and help the newborn’s internal systems — gastrointestinal, respiration, and circulation — to develop quickly. For example, kittens who are not thoroughly licked by the rough tongues of their mothers usually die. Though there weren’t, at that time, studies on humans, it seemed natural to me that we would be like other mammals in that regard.
When my first baby was born in 1976, I massaged him every day using the strokes I learned in India, combining them with what I already knew; Swedish massage, reflexology, and yoga postures I adapted for babies. Because my baby suffered from colic - a lot of crying, tensing, pulling his knees up. I devised a "Colic Relief Routine” that ended his colic in two weeks. At one point I stopped massaging him for almost two weeks; the change was noticeable. He was less cuddly, happy, eager to bond. I began massaging him again and didn't stop!
To make a long story short, I started teaching other parents, then certifying people to teach the class I had developed, and eventually certifying instructors to certify other instructors to be Trainers (that’s a mouthful!). I wrote Infant Massage, a Handbook for Loving Parents(Bantam/Random House) and founded the nonprofit International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM).
In my book (the first and most comprehensive book on infant massage), there are chapters on the physiological benefits, the elements of bonding and attachment that are naturally included in massage, and clear photographic instructions. There are chapters dedicated to music, fathers, crying and fussing, colic, preemies, your growing child, sibling bonding, adopted and foster babies, and teen parents. The massage routine I developed is more than just touching your baby. Each part of the massage, each stroke and the order of strokes — all are important, each has a reason.
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In recent years, I have been following research on how a baby’s brain develops and the impact of nurturing touch on that development. Just yesterday I read research in the journal Biological Psychiatry about the “strange contradiction” in studying the effect of parental separation on the newborn. Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented on the study's findings: “This paper highlights the profound impact of maternal separation on the infant. We knew that this was stressful, but the current study suggests that this is major physiologic stressor for the infant.”
In animal research, separation from mother is a common way of creating stress in order to study its damaging effects on the developing newborn brain. At the same time, separation of human newborns from their parents is common practice. “Skin-to-skin contact with mother removes this contradiction, and our results are a first step towards understanding exactly why babies do better when nursed in skin-to-skin contact with mother, compared to incubator care,” explained study author Dr. Barak Morgan.
I believe this profound impact applies to fathers as well. Mary Kay Keller's research and writings allude to this ramification. Fathers in our infant massage classes discover how it feels to truly bond with their babies. In the past, fathers have been relegated to “assistant” status, pushed away by both nurses and family members and led to think they are too “strong,” too “big,” too “rough” to give their infants nurturing touch.
If you are pregnant, I urge you to 1) massage your pregnant belly and talk/sing to your baby, 2) have your partner massage you as well, 3) learn infant massage [before your baby is born] so that you can begin as soon as possible after your baby is born. If possible, take a class from an IAIM certified instructor, and urge the baby’s father to come along or learn from you. You will love it! And so will your baby.
To learn more about Vimala you can find her at https://about.me/vimalamcclure
Book an Infant Massage Class in person or via Skype with Dr. Mary Kay Keller,
Certified Infant Massage Instructor, Click here!