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A Gentle Touch


The heat was cranked up high in the Visiting Nurse Association Family Room, where eight new moms and their bare-bummed babies formed a circle in preparation for an infant-massage class.

"Bring your hands into your baby's energy field," instructed VNA infant and toddler specialist Nell Ishee, demonstrating on a life-size doll. "'Paddle wheel' down the belly, nice and smooth and slow," she said, rotating her hands above the doll so that she stroked its plastic belly with one palm after the other.

The babies, ranging in age from 8 weeks to almost 6 months, splayed their arms and legs, chewed their chubby fists, and craned their necks to look at each other. The moms moved on to other massage techniques, such as using their fingers to brush the bottoms of their babies' tiny feet in a gentle "windshield wiper" motion.

The one-hour class was undeniably adorable. But cuteness aside, there are real health benefits to baby massage, said Ishee, a 20-year veteran of the Family Room who has been teaching the practice for the past 15 years.

She first became interested in it when she read that frequent massage caused premature babies to gain weight quicker than their non-massaged peers. Ishee noted that regular massage has also been shown to relieve gas and constipation, stimulate growth hormones, reduce cortisol levels associated with stress, and help babies sleep better.

As soothing music played in class, Ishee showed moms how to sweep an open palm in a rainbow shape around the top of their babies' bellies to alleviate gas and stroke down their backs to stimulate the head-lifting reflex. The babies cooed, babbled and looked wide-eyed at their mamas in response.

Strengthening the relationship between parent and child is another purpose of the practice. Ishee said that new moms and dads are often "besieged" by the media and relatives telling them what they're doing wrong. Baby-massage sessions help them relax and truly listen to infants who can't yet talk.

"Babies are in some ways such a black box," Ishee said. "But we can feel what's going on when we quiet the chatter."

Before and after the massage instruction, moms compared notes about nighttime feedings, natural hand sanitizers and cloth diapers. This camaraderie was partly what drew Brandi Thomas to the class when her now 1-year-old son, Sam, was just 6 weeks old. There aren't many interactive classes for moms and new babies, Thomas said. The class was "a social experience" for her.

How did Sam like it? He was "totally blissed out," she said.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.