The Importance of Infant Massage to Help Stimulate Brain Development
The strong urge to bond and form attachment with your child is more beneficial than you may think. Giving your baby a regular infant massage not only helps soothe and reassure your child, it can also help stimulate his brain development on many levels. So go ahead, grab a gentle massage oil and enjoy that special time with your infant.
Vimala McClure, founder of the International Association of Infant Massage and author of the book “Infant Massage, A Handbook for Loving Parents” points out that sensory stimulation helps speed up myelination of the brain and nervous system 1. She explains that the myelin sheath is the protective covering around your nerves. When a nerve is fully insulated, it “speeds up the transmission of impulses from the brain to the rest of the body.” Since a baby is not born with fully coated nerves, the skin stimulation that massage provides helps this process along, improving the brain-body communication. The vast majority of a child’s brain connections are made in the first three years of life, so enhancing the brain’s communication efficiency helps dramatically increase his learning capability.
Stress and Relaxation
In “Foundations of Physiological Psychology,” Neil R. Carlson points out that during stressful times, the pituitary gland in our brain releases a hormone called ACTH, also known as the adrenocorticotropic hormone 3. When this happens, it activates adrenal steroids that tell the body and brain to get ready to deal with unknown or unpredictable. The liver and brain, in turn, start to produce certain proteins that enable your neurons to make new connections and facilitate learning. Infants are exposed to general stress each day because everything is new and unknown. For short periods of time or during low-level stress, this learning environment can be beneficial. However, long periods of over-stimulation, exhaustion and stress can make a person’s system shut down. To counter this normal stress, massage provides the opposite effect, relaxation. The norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol released during stress is then countered and lowered with the good-mood hormone seratonin that’s released during massage. Learning how to relax during stressful times is important and teaches the brain how to respond appropriately.
Immune System Functioning
McClure also notes a research study conducted by the University of Miami School of Medicine that suggests that the loving, gentle touch of massage “stimulates nerves in the brain that facilitates food absorption and lowers stress hormones, resulting in improved immune system functioning.” Oleg Bouimer, LMT and Dr. Ross Turchaninov note that infant massage can help a baby gain weight, especially preterm infants 12. When babies are underweight, they can also suffer a weaker body defense, as well as “delays in the emotional and mental development.” They point out that the sensory receptors, especially pressure receptors, are activated during massage, increasing gastric motility and lowering cortisol levels. This leads to greater weight gain and stronger immune system functioning for the child.
When you massage your child, bonding and attachment develop. As you maintain eye contact, skin contact, communication and vocalization during the massage, feel-good hormones are released, making this a pleasant experience for all involved. As your child experiences this safe, trusting environment, it sets the groundwork for him to learn compassion, warmth, openness and respect, as he grows.
- Infant Massage; A Handbook for Loving Parents; Vimala McClure
- Vanderbilt University: Massage Therapy and Infants
- Foundations of Physiological Psychology; Neil R. Carlson
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