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Are massaged babies really happier?

QUESTION: My mom told me that it would be great for me to take a baby massage class with my new baby. She said she read recent studies saying it could help my baby sleep better and be happier and more alert when she is awake. Is regular massage really good for my baby and if so, why?

ANSWER: The first year of life forms the foundation of trust and security for your child's future. And being held, caressed and cuddled are part of providing a loving environment during this initial, and critical period of bonding. Cross cultural studies show that babies that receive holding, rocking, are breast-fed and carried grow into adults that are in general more compassionate and less aggressively violent. So, of course massaging your baby, when attuned to your baby's responses, is likely to promote a loving and positive experience.

Your baby can also benefit from the interactive nature of your massage, which can further enhance the bond between parent and child. Mothers who suffer from postpartum depression have improved with incorporating a baby massage into their daily routine, as have teenage mothers attention to their babies imcreased when infant massage was introduced into the mother-baby relationship. But the benefits do not stop there! Premature infants and children with such disorders as asthma and diabetes have also shown improvement with infant massage.

Benefits to you and you baby definitely include:

-a special time focused on just you and your baby

-relaxing, pleasurable interaction between mother and child

-help with stress (or guilt) of being separated from your baby during the day

-help learning your baby's non verbal cues

Other benefits that promoters of this method claim include the promise to sounder sleep patterns in your baby, relief from gas and colic discomfort, and decrease in stress hormones for your infant. And the list goes on!

Clearly infant massage offers a framework for pleasurable interaction with your baby. If it is mutually rewarding to mother and child, it not only encourages your child's development, but solidifies the bond between the two of you. Dads, too, however would do well to establish an activity such as this to better know and enjoy their babies.

But do keep in mind, that it is the intent that you carry into any activity that gets communicated to your child. And any activity that promotes holding and caressing, such as breastfeeding and carrying your baby in your arms, are also correlated with positive mother-infant bonding.

The fact is: babies need touching! It is not a luxury or just a good idea. It is essential to their health and well-being. (You may recall a study from an orphanage during world war II, that described how babies who were not touched and picked up, died from lack of adequate holding!) It is likely that a sensitive amount of touch stimulates your newborn's physical as well as emotional health. Appropriate touch may indeed be necessary to stimulate the release of certain neurohormones, and chemicals in the body that promote health, including a healthier immune system. And lack of enough touch leaves children under stimulated in their development in ways we may not even yet fully know or understand.

So, by all means attend an infant massage class, if you wish, and enjoy your baby! But do not forget that babies can also be over stimulated, too. So take your cues from your infant, and learn what kind of touch he or she likes and responds to, and when your baby has had enough massage and just wants to be held or quietly cuddled in your arms.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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