A loving touch for little babies


Baby and infant massage can help with a range of problems and can also help the bonding process

FIVE-MONTH-old Oscar lies on his back, arms and legs in constant motion, happily squealing in delighted anticipation. He certainly seems to know what's coming.

"This is play time for him," says his mother, Olivia Uí Thuathail, as other women arrive with their babies in varying states of wakefulness and lie them on their mats head-to-head beside him.

The fourth session of a five-week infant massage course is about to begin in St Michael's Parish Centre in Gorey, Co Wexford. The mothers sit on the floor and quietly strip the babies down to their nappies as lavender-scented candles burn on the window-sill of the warm, carpeted room.

"Class four is the face," announces course leader Anne-Marie Esler. "If they have had a difficult delivery they can be sensitive, but hopefully all will enjoy it."

In front of her lies a large doll, on which she will demonstrate the techniques, which include Indian and Swedish massage strokes, combined with ideas from reflexology and yoga. First it is time for the mothers to relax with a few exercises before reaching for their little bottles of organic, cold-pressed sunflower oil.

Esler talks them through the stages of the massage routine they have learnt over the previous weeks, starting with legs and feet, before they get to the face. Originally from Kirkintilloch outside Glasgow, her Scottish-accented words are soothing as well as instructive.

While it's all contented baby sounds at first, as the mothers rub down their infants' thighs with a chorus of "wibble wobble, wibble wobble, jelly on the plate", 20 minutes into the class they are getting tired and some a little cranky.

But they are noticeably quieter as the mothers sing "The Wheels on the Bus" to accompany the final massage and stretches.

After half an hour of total baby-focus, it's time for the mothers to chat as they dress their infants and Esler takes the orders for tea, coffee and glasses of cold water. The social aspect of the classes is a big attraction.

Sandra Bernie, a "blow-in" from Kilkenny who is here with her seven-week-old daughter Caragh, had been looking for ways to meet other mothers in the area.

Uí Thuathail is one of three mothers on the course who all gave birth on the same day in Wexford General Hospital and have kept in touch.

Apart from support groups for breast-feeding mothers, "there is not a huge number of places for new parents to go when they have a new baby," says Esler. "I constantly hear from mums in my classes that meeting up with the other mums and having that discussion time after massage was a really important part of their week."

Esler trained in infant massage in 2003, some years before she had her first child, Matthew, who is nearly three.

She had already completed a part-time, general massage course at Portobello College in Dublin, while still working in human resources at Barretstown Camp in Co Kildare, which provides therapeutic recreation for seriously ill children and their families.

In contrast to her native Scotland, where there are waiting lists for infant massage, she found she had to explain what it was and how it worked when she started offering classes in Co Wexford. But infant massage has rapidly grown in popularity, as the value of what is an ancient tradition in some cultures becomes more widely recognised here.

The International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) opened a branch in Ireland three years ago, and private health insurers cover much of the cost of courses run by IAIM accredited instructors.

Esler charges €125 for her course, and mothers on certain insurance plans can get up to €100 of that back.

She recommends massage for all babies, from birth to nine months. (Once they are mobile, the massage can be done at home as group lessons are a bit tricky.)

It is particularly good for babies who are colicky and windy, or babies with special needs, as it is good for muscle tone.

Marge Doran, who is here with five-month-old Jack, says before she started the classes "we had a great problem with his bowel movement, now it's no problem".

While she aims to do the massage daily, she manages it about five nights a week.

"It's all about getting it as part of your routine," says Esler. "It can continue as a special one-to-one time with mum or dad as they grow up."

Meanwhile, the excitement of the morning has finally got to Oscar. Sitting up against his mother, his long-distance stare gives way to a drop of the eye-lids. He's out for the count.

To find an infant massage instructor near you, see www.babymassageireland.com

Anne-Marie Esler can be contacted on 087-8326336, or see  www.infantmassage.ie

Infant massage: the physical and emotional benefits of the loving touch for both parents and babies

The pleasure of infant massage for both babies and parents is obvious, but there has been plenty of research into its measurable benefits.

US professor of paediatrics and psychiatry, Tiffany Field, studied massage on premature babies after she saw how effective it was for her daughter who was born prematurely.

The Touch Research Institute, which she set up in Miami, found premature babies who were massaged regularly gained up to 47 per cent more weight than non-massaged babies.

"If people say massage works 'because it makes you feel good'. . . excuse me," Field told Massagemagazine. "Massage works because it changes your whole physiology."

According to infant massage instructor Anne-Marie Esler, the main benefits are:

Positive touch conveys nurturing and love, the essential ingredients for emotional and physical wellbeing and growth.

Loving touch can help to relieve tension, fussiness and irritability.

Various body systems are stimulated during massage. This means that it can help relieve the symptoms of colic and constipation, develop babies' muscle tone, motor skills and co-ordination, and also help to ease common discomforts such as teething and sleeping difficulties.