For families, routine can be an opportunity to strengthen generational ties.
Renu Saxena brought her newborn daughter home from the hospital in Bengaluru, a city in southern India, on a cold October afternoon. He was struck by how fragile the creature was, with its tiny veins visible through the translucent skin.
The baby was born early, at 36 weeks, and weighed only 2.4 kilograms.
Saxena’s family suggested that she immediately apply an ancient Indian remedy to help newborns develop: the baby’s daily massage. But her doctors were more cautious and suggested that she wait for her little girl to gain weight before starting the sessions.
Saxena came to an agreement and decided to wait two weeks. During that time, her daughter barely gained weight – less than 100 grams a week – and slept unevenly.
However, when Saxena hired a retired neonatal nurse and learned from her the art of traditional baby massage, things began to improve. Not only did her daughter start to sleep well, she also gained weight.
Benefits of South Asian body massage
Far from being an isolated success, Saxena’s experience is backed by a growing body of evidence on the surprising benefits of South Asian massage for babies, even premature babies.
Studies have shown that these Oil massages, when done correctly, can help babies gain weight, prevent bacterial infections and reduce infant mortality by up to 50%.
However, parents interested in this technique should check with your doctor first to make sure it is suitable for your child.
For families that treasure this ancient practice, the results confirm their own observations.
Saxena, a former advertising executive, hails from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, known for its tradition of massaging mother and baby shortly after birth. His family has followed the routine for generations.
“My mother always told us that she recovered much faster after my delivery, her third, and that I prospered in my development because she started a massage routine the day she came home after giving birth,” says Saxena.
The neonatology nurse He taught her to heat the oils, alternating between pure coconut and almond.
In addition, he instructed her to apply them safely to her daughter’s skin in daily half-hour sessions, just before a hot bath.
“We started with soft heart-shaped caresses on the baby’s belly and spread them to other parts of the body ”, he details.
“Then we gently exercise the limbs, touching the tips of the toes up to the forehead to relieve any trapped gas.”
Researchers say that massaging babies can have health benefits that last into adulthood.
The importance of skin care
“The skin is the largest organ in the body, but we often minimize how important its care is to overall health,” he says. Gary Darmstadt, professor of neonatal and developmental medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in the United States.
In his early travels to Bangladesh and India, Darmstadt observed that families, especially mothers and grandmothers, spent a lot of time massaging their newborns. “I was intrigued to learn that it had been done for centuries and then I began to study it,” he says.
In 2008, in a study on 497 premature babies who received daily massages in a Bangladeshi hospital, Darmstadt and their collaborators showed that this ancient practice can save lives.
Lower mortality rate
“We saw a reduction of approximately 40% in the risk of infection and 25-50% in the risk of mortality, which was significant ”, he highlights.
Through separate trials, the team found that regular massages help build the baby’s microbiome, that is, the layer of bacteria that resides on the skin and in the intestine.
The microbiome plays a critical role in enhancing immunity by acting as an effective barrier that can keep infections at bay.
“Malnourished babies who were massaged with oils developed a much more diverse microbiome,” says Darmstadt.
“(The oils) enhanced the skin’s barrier function, making it difficult for bacteria to penetrate and preventing them from reaching the bloodstream and causing life-threatening infections.”
These findings were especially critical for the care of premature babies.
“In premature babies, the skin barrier does not work as well and, therefore, there is a tendency to lose water through the skin. Water evaporates (from the body) very quickly and the heat goes with it. It is easy for the baby to go into hypothermia”, Explains the teacher.
When the body temperature drops too low, it can be deadly. “The baby loses a lot of energy (fighting against this loss of heat). An energy that could be used for growth and other essential aspects of body function ”, he adds.
In an unpublished study by Darmstadt and his team, researchers tracked 26,000 babies, not just premature, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Half of them were massaged with sunflower oil and the other half with mustard oil. The researchers observed an improvement in the growth of all babies.
“And while there was no major impact on the mortality rate of normal-birth-weight babies, among the smallest babies (with a birth weight less than 1.5 kilograms), there was a significant 52% reduction in risk. to die ”, he assures.
Other researchers have found similar benefits.
Help to gain weight
One study suggests that massage stimulates the vagus nerve, one of the main nervous system linking the brain with the abdomen, which leads to better digestion and absorption of nutrients. This, in turn, can help babies gain weight.
The daily tummy massagesthey can also reduce stress and pain, which can be especially important for premature babies who spend long, lonely months in the hospital.
“We suggest that parents begin to massage their children from birth,” he says. Tiffany Field, a professor of pediatrics, psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine, who is also a specialist in infant massage.
She has reviewed studies on massage of premature babies from different countries and promotes this practice, while reminding parents that correct technique is crucial.
“You have to ‘move the skin’, applying moderate pressure, but a touch that is too gentle can make the baby feel ticklish. Most babies don’t like that and it’s not therapeutic, ”he says.
Professor Darmstadt also recommends a moderate approach: “What we don’t want to do, especially in a premature baby, is rub too hard,” he insists. “It can damage the skin barrier and that can be harmful.”
Choose and apply the oil carefully and knowing that tradition is not always the best guide for it.
A 2013 study on 194 South Indian Babies, most of whom received massages from their mothers, found that more than half of them applied oil to their mothers. ears and eyes of the baby.
Researchers warn that this could cause infections.
“We need more campaigns to avoid it and practice the correct techniques,” he highlights. Nitin Joseph, associate professor specializing in community medicine at Kasturba Medical College, near Mangalore, India, and one of the principal investigators on the study.
The most effective oils
Seed oils sunflower, coconut and sesame they are the ones that bring the most benefits, according to the research of Darmstadt and its collaborator, Peter M. Elias, a professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco.
“These oils have a high content of linoleic acid, a component that the body cannot manufacture, ”says Darmstadt.
“And there are receptors in the skin that bind to that fatty acid specifically, so that it is metabolized. There is evidence to suggest that the fatty acids in the oil can also stimulate and improve the skin’s immune function. “
Risk of inflammation
However, the oil of mustard, widely used in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, contains erucic acid, which can cause inflammation and damaging the skin barrier, Darmstadt notes.
For families, routine can be an opportunity to strengthen generational ties.
Pranjali Bhonde, a writer based in the western Indian city of Pune, massages her 14-month-old baby Samar twice a day. It started when she was born and for the first four months, her mother helped her. It was an activity that they both enjoyed.
Now when she is massaging herself, Bhonde likes to keep eye contact with her baby as she goes through the motions and sing songs and rhymes to her.
“It made our bond stronger”, he assures. “And I could see how regular massages improved her sleep and her skin.”
Oil massages can also help older family members. “We are discovering that it is also beneficial in older people. The skin becomes more fragile with age, ”says Darmstadt.
Dry skin is prone to small cracks that bacteria can let through, and the oil helps prevent this while maintaining flexibility.
Benefits for the mother
For Saxena, following her family’s tradition in North India improved not only her daughter’s health, but her own as well.
A first-time mother at age 40, she developed gestational diabetes and had to deliver her daughter by scheduled cesarean section.
“She slept for four hours without anyone bothering her after the massage, something that had never happened,” she says, recalling how much her baby enjoyed the first session.
“It also allowed me to rest. And I realized that regular massages could be the key to a healthy childhood. “