As parents, we are constantly confronted with tips and recommendations for how to help a baby settle for sleep. Many of these suggestions have either not been scientifically tested or have been shown to have no benefit to sleep. One age-old practice that has gained recognition and scientific support for its ability to improve sleep is infant massage. The gentle, loving touch of a parent's hands can work wonders for both your baby's sleep quality and your bonding experience. In this blog, we will explore the scientific basis behind the positive impact of incorporating infant massage into your bedtime routine and guide you on how to do it effectively.
Several studies have examined the impact of infant massage, not only as a nurturing practice but also as a way to improve sleep quality in infants and enhance the parent-infant bond. One study reviewed the evidence for how touch, such as massage and skin-to-skin contact (aka kangaroo care) influences infants. They found that studies support the idea that touch can help regulate emotions in infants by affecting the release of neurotransmitters like cholecystokinin and opioids (Weller and Feldman 2003). This regulation of emotions can have a calming effect, enhancing the bedtime experience and making it easier to fall asleep.
Direct studies examining how infant massage impacts sleep and bonding supports the idea that massage can have a positive impact. For example, in a study of 123 mothers and babies aged 3 to 18 months, researchers conducted a randomized trial to evaluate the impact of a massage-based bedtime routine on sleep and mood in infants and mothers. The mothers who were assigned to give their babies massages before bed reported that sleep problems improved, bedtimes were easier, and their babies were in a better mood in the morning compared to mothers of babies who did not receive massages. This was a very well done study by a leading infant sleep researcher (Mindell et al., 2018). Similarly, study of 120 mothers and babies aged 3-6 months found that massage strengthened the parent-infant bond, increased nightly sleep duration, and decreased the number and duration of night wakings (Hartanti et al., 2019).
Massage has been shown to help toddlers too! After receiving massages for 15 minutes during the bedtime routine for one month, babies and toddlers fell asleep faster and had better sleep quality and daytime engagement compared to parents who just read a book during the bedtime routine (Field and Hernandez-Reif, 2001).
These scientific insights affirm that infant massage can be a useful tool for promoting both peaceful sleep and the emotional connection between parents and infants.
How to do Infant Massage:
Incorporating infant massage into your bedtime routine is a wonderful way to create a soothing transition from playtime to sleep.
To make infant massage a regular part of your bedtime routine, aim for a session lasting about 5-10 minutes. Massaging your baby at the same time each night as part of your bedtime routine creates a sense of predictability, signaling that it's time to wind down for sleep. Here's how to do it:
Choose the Right Time: Perform the massage after your baby's bath but before you put on their pajamas. This creates a comforting bridge between active play and rest.
Create a Relaxing Environment: Set the mood with dimmed lights, soft music, and ensuring the room is a comfortable temperature for sleep. You might also incorporate a lovey into your routine by having the lovey give your baby kisses before you start. This can help strengthen attachment to a lovey as a source of comfort (more on loveys here).
Use a Baby-Friendly Oil (optional): You can massage your baby without using oils. If you do use one, opt for hypoallergenic, unscented, and non-mineral oil. Apply a small amount to your hands to prevent friction.
Position Your Baby: Lay your baby on his/her back on a soft surface, such as a changing mat or a bed. Ensure your hands are warm by gently rubbing them together.
Massage Techniques: Gently stroke and knead your baby's skin, starting with their legs and working your way up to their chest and arms. Use gentle pressure and watch for cues from your baby. Avoid applying too much force and avoid massaging the fontanelles (soft spots on the head).
Maintain Eye Contact and Talk: Engage with your baby by maintaining eye contact and softly talking or singing. You might say things like, "you had such a busy day, now it's time to relax and prepare for sleep." This enhances the bonding experience.
While infant massage has been shown to benefit sleep and bonding, adding a massage to your routine probably won't fix complicated sleep problems. As always, we are here to help. If you are struggling, then feel free to book a one-on-one consultation with us or check out our sleep class. We developed the class based on our work with parents and offer many different approaches to sleep problems. We have lots of positive feedback on the class and you can join our private Facebook group for extra support while taking the class.
Mindell, J.A., Lee, C.I., Leichman, E.S., & Rotella, K.N. (2018). Massage-based bedtime routine: impact on sleep and mood in infants and mothers. Sleep Medicine, 41, 51-57.
Weller, A., & Feldman, R. (2003). Emotion regulation and touch in infants: the role of cholecystokinin and opioids. Peptides, 24(5), 779-788.
Field, T., & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2001). Sleep problems in infants decrease following massage therapy. Early Child Development and Care, 168(1), 95-104.
Hartanti, A.T., Salimo, H., & Widyaningsih, V. (2019). Effectiveness of infant massage on strengthening bonding and improving sleep quality. Indonesian Journal of Medicine, 4(2), 165-175.