Baby massage, a traditional Indian practice, is an integral part of infant care in many Indian households. Most doctors or caregivers promote baby massage, especially to a newborn. But there are diverse opinions about the techniques or best practices for giving a baby massage. Like, who should massage your baby? Or which oil is best for a baby massage? Or how to massage your baby? In this post, I am going to share my learnings and experience of giving massage to my baby.

What is baby massage?

Baby massage is just the gentle stroking of a baby’s body with the hands, in slow, repeated movements. Caregivers or doctors recommend massaging a baby with hands, with or without using emollients like oil or cream.

Is massage good for babies?

Baby massage is an Ayurvedic therapy and a highly popular postnatal practice in India. Doctors also recommend parents to massage their baby, but primarily to foster a closer bond with their infant. Traditionally, a regular massage is considered to aid physical development, improve weight gain and promote growth in a baby. Almost all the fellow moms I know massaged their newborn (on the advice of their paediatrician or elders in the family).

Some of the known benefits of baby massage are ([1] [2]):

  • Increase bonding between the baby and his caregivers
  • Calm/ relax the baby and reduce fussiness
  • Provide relief from gas to the baby
  • Soothing effect on parents giving massage
  • Help baby sleep well

Massage is found to be useful in pre-term babies too, especially to improve weight gain [ click here to read more about benefits of massaging pre-term babies].

Why did I decide on massaging my baby?

Some wise person (or the internet) has accurately described Massage as a “therapy for the mind, the body and the spirit”. Personally, anytime I went for a massage, it has a helped me to relax my mind and de-stress (especially in case of minor physical discomfort). So I needed no convincing to massage my baby :-). In any case, giving massage to the baby is supposed to have a similar benefit: relax/de-stress the mother :-).

My mom insisted on daily massage for my newborn baby (even before I delivered). It was also recommended in my pre-natal class primarily to create a positive bond with the baby. Also, since I had the bandwidth of time, I planned to massage Anu daily.

When to start massaging a baby?

There is no stringent timeline to start baby massage per se. From day 1 after birth dry massage (without using emollients) can be done to a newborn.

Traditionally, massage starts as soon as the baby is home after delivery or after cord-stump falls off. Traditional massage mostly involves using massage oil.

But most doctors recommend waiting for 3-4 weeks after delivery before massaging with oil or cream. This wait-period also gives time for cord-stump to fall off (oil or cream if accumulated in the cord-stump can cause an infection). At the time of birth, baby’s skin is sensitive and prone to irritation/infection from a foreign material. Baby’s skin barrier is not fully developed at birth and may take between 3-4 weeks to mature. Oil or cream used for massaging, before the skin barrier matures, can harm the baby’s skin and hence doctors recommend only dry massage (without oil or cream) first 3-4 weeks after birth [3].

We started giving dry massage to Anu from the 10th day after her birth (her cord-stump came off on the 8th day after birth). We started doing oil massage to Anu 4 weeks after delivery.

Who should massage the baby?

It is a topic of debate: who should massage a baby. Traditionally, a Daai or a Maalishwali would massage a newborn and the mother. But doctors these days recommend only parents or family members to give massage to a baby.

Should a Maalishwali give massage to my baby?

Traditionally in previous generations, in many Indian households, a Maalishwali or a Daai would massage a baby. Many of them learnt the art/technique from their family which was usually involved or specialised in childcare practices.

But these days, many Maalishwalis (especially in urban India)  do not necessarily specialise in baby massage or childcare. Many of them are inexperienced to do this job (lacking training or hands-on experience) and do baby massage job since it pays well or do it along with other household work (which may compromise hygiene).

There are Japas or traditionally trained Maalishwalis specialising in baby massage. If you can find one, they may be beneficial at least in the initial 4-6 weeks when the mother is recuperating post delivery. A Japa/trained-Maalishwali would be aware of the nitty-gritty of baby massage, e.g. massage techniques, massage with and without oil, massage for full-term vs pre-term baby, bathing baby after massage. Also, she should maintain hygiene, cleaning the place where the baby gets a massage, wash her hands and legs thoroughly before baby’s massage (baby lays on legs in a traditional Indian massage), cleaning the bath area before and bathing the baby etc..

My experience of hiring a Maalishwali for baby massage

I hired a maalishwali, and she was superb. I was reluctant to hire anyone and planned to massage Anu myself. But my Aai insisted that I should hire someone at least for the first month. She argued that it takes 4-6 weeks to settle with baby duties when you are still recovering from childbirth, and a little help with daily massage would be good. Our Maalishwali, Geeta Maushi (recommended by few friends), was meticulous with her job, paid considerable attention to hygiene and was very gentle with the baby. And she gave quite a few useful suggestions for baby care. Anu loved her and enjoyed the massage and bath. In fact, Geeta Maushi massaged me too for three months post delivery.

Should parents or family members massage the baby?

Many doctors recommend that parents (or family members) should massage the baby to bond together. Giving a regular massage to baby helps a mother to relax as well [2].

Also, most medical professionals are against hiring a Maalishwali for massaging a baby. Questionable hygiene, improper massage techniques, insistence on following unsafe rituals (like holding baby over smoke, applying Kajal, putting oil in baby’s ear/nose etc.) are some of the reasons cited against hiring a Maalishwali.

After six weeks of delivery, I started massaging Anu. I had hired a Maalishwali who massaged Anu from 10th day (dry massage initially and with oil after 4 weeks of birth). Daily, Anu had her ‘maalish’ in the morning from Geeta Maushi, and from me in the evening. I massaged her (dry or with oil or baby lotion) for a shorter time, around 7-8 minutes. It became our daily routine until Anu was 8 months old. I would tell her a story or sing to her when massaging and she would listen intently. It was indeed a great way to bond :-).

Is oil or cream useful for a baby massage?

Baby massage can be done with dry hands or using oil or cream. An emollient (e.g. oil or moisturiser) makes it easier to glide your hands over baby’s body during the massage. Also, using oil or cream for massage helps to reduce dryness of skin. However, paediatricians recommend oil or cream for baby massage only after 3-4 weeks of baby’s birth.

Which oil or cream is best for a baby massage?

Traditionally in India oil is used for baby massage. Depending on the region, the season and sensitivity of baby’s skin, the oil varies. Coconut oil is traditionally considered safe on the skin, useful during all seasons and any region (even hot and humid places). In winter, people prefer Sesame oil or Almond oil. Many parents prefer using cold pressed oil for baby massage. Some Maalishwalis also prepare special oil for baby massage, mixing different oils or infusing an oil with herbs. Consult your paediatrician before using any oil (especially infused oil) for baby massage. Popular brands for baby massage oil are Dabur, Himalaya, Johnson & Johnson, Kama Ayurveda, Chicco etc..

You may have heard that mustard oil is useful in winters or these days people also prefer olive oil (not native to India). However, these oils may be harsh on baby’s skin and its best to use them only after consulting your paediatrician [4].

A gentle moisturiser is also a popular option for massage. Many parents prefer to massage baby with a baby mosituriser instead of oil. Well-known brands of baby mosituriser are Sebamed, Himalaya, Chicco, Pigeon Johnson & Johnson etc..

I used Conscious Foods’ cold pressed Coconut oil for massaging Anu’s. Sometimes, especially for her evening massage, I would use her mosituriser for massage.

Precautions when using oil or cream for a baby massage

While using any oil or cream for baby massage, please take following precautions:

  • Do a patch test on the baby’s skin (for the oil/cream)  before applying on the body
  • Use an oil or cream from a reputed brand only
  • Use an oil or cream which is appropriate for the climatic condition
  • Consult your paediatrician about when to start oil/cream massage
  • Consult your paediatrician for the type of oil/cream suitable for baby’s skin
  • If baby develops a rash after massage, change the cream/oil used
  • Avoid using essential oils or infused oils for newborn babies

How to massage a baby?

There are different techniques to massage various parts of a baby’s body. Some people like to start with the face and move downwards, while many prefer to start massage with legs and then proceed to upper body parts. Following are some of the ways to massage different body parts:

  • Hands and legs: Glide both hands in a circular motion along the length of the baby’s legs and hands, or gently rub hands in up and down motion. Some may also prefer to glide hands in one direction, e.g. top to down.
  • Tummy: Give tummy massage with gentle circular strokes.
  • Back: Massage baby’s back in gentle up or down strokes or gliding the thumb downwards and sideways or in small circular strokes.
  • Fingers, palm and feet: Use your thumb to gently press the fingers, palm or feet or use your palm to rub on baby’s feet and palm gently.

Click here, here or here for few reference videos demonstrating different ways to massage a baby. Click here for step by step description of massaging a baby.

We massaged Anu in traditional Indian style, keeping her on the legs while massaging. We regularly used coconut oil although sometimes I used baby moisturiser or did it without any oil or cream. Massage technique was a mix of circular strokes or gentle up/down rubbing with hands or gliding the thumb.

Useful tips for baby massage

While massaging your baby, you may find the following tips useful (learnt from collective experience) :

  • Choose a well lit and quiet corner for massage, avoid direct air drafts
  • Maintain a fixed schedule if possible
  • Keep baby on the floor or a firm bed
  • Keep baby on a clean and soft sheet. Use a protective layer below the sheet to avoid soiling your clothes or sheet/mattress below.
  • Before starting the massage, keep oil/cream (if required), wet wipes (to clean pee/poop), towel/napkin (to wipe excess oil/cream) handy.
  • Talk or sing to your baby

Precautions when massaging a baby

When massaging a baby, please take the following precautions:

  • Avoid massaging just before or after a feed/meal (keep a gap of at least 45-60 mins)
  • If required, learn baby massage techniques from an experienced caregiver
  • If you hire a Maalishwali, supervise her for massage techniques, hygiene etc.
  • Baby should not be in discomfort during or after massaging
  • Massage strokes should be gentle and smooth

When should I stop massaging my baby?

As long as your baby enjoys massaging and you enjoy giving a massage, you can continue the baby massage. Many people do it frequently till baby starts walking. Once babies become mobile, most of them dislike being in one place for more than a few minutes, which makes massaging difficult.

Regularly massage a newborn (daily if time permits), if possible, until 3-6 months.

We massaged Anu daily till she was 7.5 months old. After that, she became impatient being in one place. So I would massage her once or twice a week. After she turned 1, massaging happens when Anu is not well or when she has a cough.

Benefits of massaging for my baby

Massaging is indeed a great way to bond with the baby. Anu loved her massage time. She would often giggle or keep smiling during her massage time. I would enjoy the massage time as well, telling Anu stories or singing to her while giving her massage. Anu would listen to the stories or songs with rapt attention and a smile on her face.

Massaging, at a set time daily, helped us establish a schedule especially a sleep schedule in the late evening. Also, tummy massage helped to keep gas troubles at bay, especially in first 3-6 months (click here to read more about relieving gassy baby). Daily oil massage helped with maintaining dryness under control.