I find a lot of parents take their baby to get baby massages. I have heard that babies who receive periodic baby massages (such as once a week) are showing rapid development in their motor skills and emotional development. Is that true? Are there any good references to support this claim? Are the massage techniques something we can perform at home on our own?
Regarding your specific questions (motor skills and emotional development):
The only evidence I could find that supported the idea of an improvement in motor skills were studies that showed an increase in weight for premature babies that received therapeutic massage versus premature babies who did not receive therapeutic massage. There were repeated claims of peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate a wider range of benefits related to motor skills, but I could not find direct references to those studies (the specific claims are summarized below).
There does seem to be compelling evidence in favor of baby massage in terms of improving maternal-child relationship, particularly in regards to cases of maternal depression, and evidence in support of an overall reduction in stress and cortisol levels, suggesting indirect benefits for emotional development.
There is considerable research on the topic of baby massage. Much of it seems focused on premature babies, but in general, the claims from peer-reviewed studies and journals include:
- Strengthened immune system
- Improved muscle tone
- Enhanced development of the nervous system
- Increased circulation
- Improved sleep
- Reduced symptoms of gassiness, colic, and constipation
- Reduced fussiness and irritability
- Increased alertness during awake times
- Strengthened parent-child communication and bonding
- Increased caregiver confidence
Increases in weight gain by premature babies seems to be one of the primary uses of therapeutic baby massage (at least in professional western medicine).
However, this meta study found that there is a scarcity of current, research-based, peer-reviewed studies of the effects of baby massage, and that some of the methodologies used by the studies they found were considered flawed:
Insufficient evidence is found for the continued massage of pre- term and low birthweight infants in neonatal intensive care units. Benefits are claimed for the use of massage in specific medical conditions such as asthma and dermatitis, but the review reporting on these benefits was methodologically flawed. A randomised controlled trial found no significant difference between colicky babies that were massaged and a control group. By far the most compelling evidence relates to the benefits of baby massage on the maternal-child relationship and postnatal depression. This evidence would thoroughly justify the provision of infant massage classes in the community by the health visitor.
One of the most cited studies showed that premature infants who were massaged for 15 minutes three times a day gained 47% more weight, were more alert, scored better on the Brazelton Neonatal Behavior Assessment Test, and were released from the hospital six days earlier than preterm infants who were not massaged. Eight months later, the massaged infants maintained their weight gain and showed enhanced cognitive and motor development. Massage has also been found to be useful in reducing preterm infant stress behaviors as well.
Again, though, most of the focus is on preterm babies. This is seen also on the Institute's summary of baby massage research.
I don't know if there's scientific evidence about developmental benefits but it's a certainly good bonding opportunity for you to do at home. I wouldn't take my baby to somebody else and pay them to massage my baby... this is not a burdensome chore or a highly skilled activity. Google "baby massage techniques"
Don't take your babies to a massage therapist. Just sit back and think of how smart you are in not being taken advantage of by a bunch of shysters.
There are studies that indicate that touch between the parents and the baby improves the babies emotional development. But it is hardly ground breaking stuff to show that a fish needs water.
A good heuristic is to evaluate such things in terms of opportunity/cost. I.e. what benefits could a baby possible get in that half hour massage + 15 min each way travel times that I could not beat by dedicating an hour to playing with my baby myself?
It is very hard to beat an hours dedicated attention from a loving parent.
The important thing is not spending time with baby through massage but the massage itself is important for baby's motor skills development. Spending time with baby is of-course important and there are many different ways for this. But that is a separate topic, it should not be intermingled with massage.
In India it is a regular practice to give massage to the baby before giving him/her a bath. There are maids specializing in this technique and they are regularly appointed by families having a new baby. The massage is done with special baby oil or olive oil. After the massage and bath the baby is hungry, it is fed and put to sleep. This helps in overall growth of limbs and the whole body.
The new mom is also given massage for 2 months or so. The baby's massage continues till almost a year.
I read up on this technique when my little one was still a "BUN in the oven" and despite finding info pretty much congruent with BEOFett's answer, I decided that in terms of the maternal relationship aspect as well as some of the other POSSIBLE benefits, it was worth it for me to learn how and massage her some myself because it couldn't hurt - but I also didn't spend a bunch of money on it.
She hated it! She hated massage by anyone who did it (even a ped's nurse I know). She still doesn't like any sort of massage even though she is six and highly active. Very light circles on her back at bed time are about all she can handle (THAT she likes - sometimes).
Despite this, she and I have a very good relationship, she is active, healthy and has good muscle tone, AND was never behind on physical, emotional or academic skills in anyway. I think it is one of those "don't sweat the small stuff" things. Try it, but don't go into debt over it, if it works for you great but don't worry about it if it doesn't work for you. You child will probably be just fine either way.