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The introduction of infant massage as a trend in new parent circles began in our culture with Vimala McLure’s 1979 book “Infant Massage A Handbook for Loving Parents.” She was among the first to write about massage by parents for infants.


September 18, 2009
By Linda Hickey RMT

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The introduction of infant massage as a trend in new parent circles began in our culture with Vimala McLure’s 1979 book “Infant Massage A Handbook for Loving Parents.”1 She was among the first to write about massage by parents for infants. While the organization that grew from her early work (The Association of Infant Massage) was expanding and training instructors around the world other massage pioneers like Marybetts Sinclair2, Maria Mathias3 and the prolific work of Tiffany Field and her colleagues at the Touch Institute have helped give credibility to the application of massage to children in general and in specific treatment concerns.

In the community of infant massage, there are opportunities to work with special populations, babies with motor and other developmental disabilities and their families who would all benefit from general relaxation and calming massage as well as specific therapeutic techniques to address individual concerns.

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Photo by Julie Lee 

There is absolutely no difference between the beautiful kissable tummies and toes of babies who have cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome or any and all other babies.

Unfortunately at times the professional support teams and in turn, families may lose sight of that and “therapy” and ‘intervention” takes over.

How very quickly the coveted, early family/baby bonding experiences gives way to involvement and life saving intervention by teams of medical and therapy personal gathering and sharing information and making treatment decisions.

The experience of the young family whose baby has a disability is often one of separation, stress and anxiety for both baby and parents – far from the birth and early parenting experience they dreamed of. Then, the long-awaited baby homecoming is usually followed by a never ending series of medical appointments as the baby is followed, assessed, diagnosed, and treatment begun. I am the parent of a son who has cerebral palsy, now an adult. I am also a massage therapist, changing careers 10 years ago after a long and interesting career in social services.

My family’s experiences, my longtime interest in supporting families of children with disabilities and my growing interest in the world of touch were all influences that lead to a demonstration early intervention program for families with babies with cerebral palsy where the inclusion of massage therapy was an integral focus.

One of the range of services offered by the P.A.C.E. program in Calgary, Alberta was affectionately known as “Mother-Baby Group.” Groups of families came together weekly to connect with other parents and through those difficult, early days, support took the form of grass roots connections with other families who were having similar experiences. Together they interpreted and integrated the onslaught of information and advise they were receiving at the hospital about cerebral palsy. 

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However, the creators and other leaders of the group had their sights set on a much bigger ambition. Our intent was to put the celebration and fun back into the lives of families and to celebrate babies – ALL babies. Massage was one of the cornerstones in meeting that aim.

Over 12 weeks the groups were lead on an exploration of what there was to feel in their babies bodies – the names and characteristics of the muscles that were being talked about in physical therapy sessions and how to feel changing tone – all important skills for parents to have for the months and years ahead – and all very “head “ based.

The “heart” of early parenting, loving focused communication was a primary intent of massage instruction – listening, interpreting and encouraging babies to tell us their stories and concerns, acknowledging and honouring all they had to say, all the while enjoying the feel of baby legs and tummies in their hands and gaining confidence to handle their babies in natural rhythmic ways that relaxed and confident mothers know. 

While there are a number of excellent infant massage curriculum available, we chose to work with “Paediatric Massage for the Child with Special Needs4, a clear, friendly manual that allows for copying the handbook for group instruction.

Working with a music therapist, each group helped create songs and rhymes to accompany our massage. Also on the team were more traditional therapists – occupational, speech and physical therapists and a teacher.

With the help of Annie, a home-made teaching doll who was “my baby,” the
parents and babies were led through instruction as follows:

  • Week 1: Introducing the concepts of infant massage – the intent of massaging for communication mother’s attention and care to the baby, and for babies to be listened and responded to. We also worked with the mothers in the areas of their posture, relaxation and breathing and in interpreting non-verbal communication with their little ones.
  • Week 2 & 3: covering the anterior and posterior soft tissues of the legs, traditional infant massage strokes and also range of motion and stretching, warming techniques for pre-and post wearing AFO’s ( the ankle/ foot orthotics some of the children wore. Annie had a pair too!)
  • Week 4: The abdominal structures, positioning and techniques for possible tummy troubles – gas, colic,
  • constipation and dehydration.
  • Weeks 5 & 6: Anterior and posterior aspects of the shoulder: paired with chest and arm massage, stretching and mobilizations all with silly
  • tunes and rhymes.
  • Week 7: Face and head massage and, with the help of our speech therapist, oral-motor desensitization.
  • Week 8: Back, sacral and buttock areas.
  • Week 9: Introducing craniosacral
  • therapy.
  • Week 10: Introducing reflexology.
  • Week 11 & 12: practice, fun and songs and rhymes.

Throughout the time together, the entire family was always welcomed. Brothers and sisters participated and played alongside their siblings and volunteers were available to help out with toys or a craft. Special Saturday sessions were offered for fathers (no moms allowed!) to share some of our music and massage ideas and connect together. And our gatherings often included grandparents and caregivers as well. It certainly made for some rambunctious times together – but celebrate we did. Imagine shifting from guilt, resistance and fear to a place of peace, calmness and fulfillment. That is the shift that infant massage therapy brought to our lives and our twins in 1996.

Born three months premature, our twin boys were diagnosed within their first year with cerebral palsy.

We were thrown into a world of therapy – occupational, speech and physiotherapy. By the time the boys were seven months old we felt overwhelmed, not only with the responsibility of raising twins but the daily task of trying to perform stretches and various other routines that “would be good for them.” There never were enough hours in the day. We were feeling more like therapists than parents and the boys didn’t enjoy the routine that much either.

Linda Hickey came into our lives in the fall of 1996. From her we learned the joyful art of infant massage. Compliance never seemed to be an issue with the boys. What a beautiful feeling for us to be touching our boys in a loving, soothing way and still feeling like we were benefiting them without creating pain for them.

As babies, all we had to do was bring out the bottle of massage oil and they broke out in grins. We have beautiful memories of massaging those four chubby little legs.

The boys are seven now and still enjoy massages immensely and we love obliging. It soothes them after a hectic, busy day and grounds them when they are out of sorts.

This will be a lifelong habit and one that gave us back the feeling of parenthood with our two special,
gorgeous sons. What a beautiful
gift, the power of touch.

– Rhonda Clarke, with Wyatt’s and Fraser’s help.
Certainly all children need to grow up hearing and believing they are loved and that they are beautiful, amazing, wonderful and just perfect the way they are. In families where therapeutic intervention and special equipment take over it is too easy to shift focus to the disability rather than abilities and too easy for the child – and parent – to get the idea they are not as good or as lovable as other non-disabled families and babies. 

Early intervention programs that encourage and guide families in defining what is important for them and then in integrating “therapy” around those values are what is needed first and foremost for the long term health of families and community. 

Information and therapy is important but it will be confidence in their intuition, hands and in touching their babies that will be the family’s connection and grounding force for the years ahead.

Footnotes:

  1. Vimala McClure (1979) Infant Massage A Handbook for Loving Parents. Bantam Books.
  2. Marybett’s Sinclair (1992) Massage for Healthier Children, Wingbow Press.
  3. For a summary of published and ongoing research exploring massage and different populations see the Touch Research Institute site, www.miami.edu/touch-research
  4. Maria Mathias is an IAIM instructor in New Mexico who has developed a continuing education course for IAIM – “Touch and Massage for Babies and Children with Special Needs” presented in Ottawa. Her website is: www.infantmassageinstitute.com


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