Baby photos: Kate Mount
Katies photo: Peter James Millson
I’m passionate about bringing the benefits of positive touch into every day life, so starting at the very beginning (of life) makes sense. Helping couples to connect with each other and their babies throughout pregnancy and as a new family has been part of my world for over 20 years now, and fathers are very much in the picture. The more empowered and included fathers feel, the better for the whole family.
I often hear new fathers say that they feel excluded from the growing closeness they watch developing between mother and baby, especially through breastfeeding. There is even more than bonding going on there: the eye to eye and skin to skin contact, which happens naturally during a breastfeed, offers wonderful sensory stimulation to a baby, and the ‘quiet alert’ state that breastfed babies tend to dwell in is so beneficial to their wellbeing and development.
Is it any wonder that Dads can feel pushed aside by the exclusivity of this relationship? They want to bond emotionally with their baby, but how can they possibly achieve a similar kind of intimate and safe contact, or offer such incredible benefits at this crucial stage of their baby’s development?
Well there is good news for new Dads! Baby massage can promote that same ‘quiet alert’ state, and the same eye to eye contact and far more skin to skin contact. Regular simple massage sessions can also improve a baby’s ability to relax and often help improve sleep patterns. It is a time when a baby can see, feel and smell their parent (smell is very important to a tiny baby) and begin to form important connections and associations. Breast feeding optimises hand-to-eye coordination, especially with regular side-switching; massage and simple movements, such as crossing arms in front of the chest, and pulling each toe in turn can similarly improve co-ordination and fine motor skills.
Want more good news? Baby massage is really simple to learn. Not only that, but it should be a really fun and relaxing experience for father and baby. Something special to do together. In the words of Joe, father of twins Angus and Harry “Massage is now part of a really enjoyable bedtime routine – I can even do two at once!“.
Massage stimulates oxytocin (the hormone of love and bonding) in both the giver and the receiver, and the benefits of touch can actually start before birth; a baby’s first massage can be while they are still in the womb. I encourage fathers to be to gently hold and massage the mother-to-be’s growing belly, and to tune into their baby and their own feelings about their baby. It’s a great way for Dads to feel more involved in the pregnancy “Jed found that massaging my tummy and feeling the kicks was the best way of taking part in an experience which was making him green with envy” says Gilly Smith from Brighton. Jed’s involvement continued long after the birth of their two daughters, Elly and Lou Lou; he took his turn in massaging both of them after the birth as part of the night time routine. “They loved it, and we found that it settled them and made them sleep very well”. The power of communication for a couple using regular positive touch and massage for non verbal support and connection is so valuable. I encourage this throughout pregnancy, during labour and when a baby is first born (see Really Useful Massage YouTube videos).
In the weeks after birth, baby massage is such a wonderful way for a father to develop communication with his baby. OK babies can’t talk, but they certainly are able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in other ways. Baby massage offers focused one to one time away from the usual distractions of life where a Dad can oberve and gradually get to know these cues.
There is a brilliant Australian study of 32 first time Dads with new babies where 16 fathers massaged their babies regularly for the first 12 weeks of life, and a control group of 16 did not (I feel for those babies!). The Dads who did massage were rewarded with more eye contact, smiling, vocalising and reaching and showed less avoidance behaviour than the control group. What’s more, it wasn’t just the babies who showed more response, but experts also observed that the Dads who had massaged showed greater involvement and connection with their babies and another study showed that Dads who massage their babies have lower stress levels around parenting.
I didn’t know about baby massage when our first son was born,” says Stephen, father of Sam, Sarah and Jake “but with our next two children my wife attended baby massage classes at the local yoga centre and when she came home she taught me how to do it. I definitely felt that Sarah and Jake connected with me more as babies. Also it gave me something really special to do with them, beyond the boring routine of nappies and winding”.
There are plenty of Dad-friendly baby massage classes around these days, and fathers are certainly very welcome at my classes in Totnes, Devon. Learning with other parents can be part of the fun, but it’s certainly possible to learn it at home and for Dads to develop their own intuitive massage that feels right for them and their baby. I am writing a step-by-step guide to baby massage for Fathers as an appendix in the forthcoming book by Mark Harris: “oops sorry I forgot the name “ (Edit by Mark: "The name of the new book is still a secret")
Founder of Really Useful Massage and former director of Vital Touch, is an experienced massage therapist, aromatherapist and reflexologist, passionate about bringing positive touch into everyday life, including pregnancy, labour and new parenthood as well as end of life care.
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