The benefits of baby massage may not be scientifically documented, but those who practise it have proof of their own.
The human touch: The benefits of baby massage
To many in the pragmatic West, the notion of baby massage seems the embodiment of yummy-mummy self-indulgence - the sort of right-on worthiness that goes along with three-wheeled buggies, organic infant food and baby yoga. But, like all those examples, it is a practice that, if not exactly rigorously tested, does reveal results - even clinically.
That won't be a surprise to anyone who hails from the cultures of Asia. From China's Qing dynasty to the present-day Ganges Basin, cultural expectations have meant that babies, from birth up to the age of around six months, have been massaged by their mothers, generation after generation.
For the mothers of Mithila, northern India, according to one research paper undertaken at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, the massage is believed to "clean, beautify, strengthen, limber up and fatten the baby as well as to instil in it positive mental-emotional qualities".
Those are appealing qualities, and over the past couple of decades, infant massage has been taken up by the proponents of complementary medicine, with yoga studios, massage therapists and even some paediatric hospitals offering classes in "tactile stimulation".
In fact, the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) was set up in 1986 by Vimala McClure after observing babies being massaged in India.
"I think some parents will get more benefit than others," says Helen Gillespie, who instructs baby massage at the Infinity Clinic in Dubai, and is certified by IAIM. "Some will do it when the baby's calm, such as after a bath; some mums will do it in a more haphazard way, some mums do it longer; and yes, some parents will find it works for colic. Some babies will be more able to relax, find it easier to settle and sleep."
Kathryn Smith, a 30-year-old Australian living in Abu Dhabi, learnt to massage her five-month-old son Theodore at the Yoga Tree studio because "it seemed to promote the attachment between mother and child, providing a little time for one-on-one, where the absolute focus was Theodore". She makes it part of his bath-time routine, and says that "his face lights up and he smiles when he sees me getting ready for the massage".
It's not just for mothers, either, says Gillespie. "I really try to teach fathers because, particularly here in Dubai, they work away from home a lot longer and some find the only time they have with their baby is a few minutes in the evening."
For relationships in which the physical and emotional parental bond has been absent - for example, as a result of postnatal depression or hospitalisation of the child - this can only be beneficial. Moreover a number of studies have indicated that massage may actually increase weight gain and bone density in preterm births, leading to shorter hospital stays.
A team of researchers at Warwick University, meanwhile, examined a series of studies and found that infant massage in babies under six months old may have resulted in lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and potentially higher levels of melatonin, which is associated with sleep. This backs up the theory that babies who receive regular massage cry less and sleep more.
"We know that massage has many benefits - touch is a very positive thing," says Jasmine Sneyd, the clinical resource nurse at the Corniche Hospital in Abu Dhabi.
The hospital does not offer massage classes, but Sneyd says many women who give birth at the hospital practice it as a cultural norm, and that the benefits are tangible - something that is backed up in practice, says Smith.
"I found in the beginning that it helped with tummy pain for Theodore. If he had pains, I could help by massaging him in the way I had learnt in classes."
"There is a lot of simple touch that we encourage," says Sneyd. "We call it 'kangaroo care': that's like holding the baby next to the mother, which we try to do at birth, and other close touch. We probably all do it and don't realise we're doing it."
Gillespie agrees: "I think most mums love to hold and touch their babies, and some mums are instinctively more tactile," she says.
You don't have to stop at six months, either, says Gillespie - though it's unlikely your teenager will take kindly to being slathered with sunflower oil. "You can massage really up to any age group," she says. "It's not so easy to massage a toddler, but when they're tired, you can relax their back, draw pictures on their tummy. It's really just about the loving touch."
To massage your infant: Gillespie’s guide
• Find a quiet time when you’re not rushed, so you can both relax, and when the baby is in a quiet but alert state – not sleepy.
• Turn off the TV and perhaps have some quiet background music.
• Use a natural vegetable-based oil, perhaps a mix of sunflower and olive oil, with no scent at all, so mums can smell the babies and babies can smell their mums.
• Get close to the baby, look at them and sing to them.
• First massage the legs, one at a time, using gentle, rhythmic strokes: you’re moving your hands rhythmically along the muscles to stimulate the muscles and stimulate the growth. Go over and round, up and down.
• Move on to the arms, then the chest, then the face, then the back.
• Listen and watch for the baby’s cues as to whether they like particular parts or dislike others. Some babies will kick or cry, so you have to get them used to it slowly. If the baby is unhappy during a massage, he will associate the massage with discomfort.
• Eventually, you can massage for 20 minutes a day.
Where to find baby massage in the Emirates
• Caroline Roberts at the Swedish Medical Center in Abu Dhabi offers “well baby” clinics and the city’s only private midwifery centre. www.b4babyandbeyond.org; 02 681 1122
• The IAIM-trained Helen Gillespie provides baby massage classes at the Infinity Clinic in Dubai. www.ihcdubai.com; 04 394 8994
• Yoga Tree in Abu Dhabi offers group classes for a minimum of five mums run by Ingrid Laulund, recommencing next month. www.yogatree.ae; 02 667 6579
• Cooper Health Clinic, Dubai, offers baby massage and “well baby” clinics. www.cooperhealthclinic.com; 04 348 6344