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National Health and Medical Research Council Includes Cue-Based Infant Massage as a Potentially Effective Intervention in Infant Mental Health

A report released by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has recognised and included cue-based Infant Massage as an intervention that may potentially help promote some factors contributing to early social and emotional development in a baby’s first year of life.

The finding has been welcomed by Australian children’s charity Baby in Mind. Baby in Mind is the only organisation in Australia providing nationally-accredited training to health professionals in infant massage education.

The organisation is also the only infant-focused organisation with full membership to Mental Health Australia, and is an official partner to the World Health Organisation Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Program.

The NHMRC report identifies that infant massage, when taught to new parents, may help contribute to improvements in some factors influencing early social and emotional development in babies. The Committee responsible for undertaking the review was headed by Professor Jane Fisher, Director of Research Jean Hailes Centre for Women’s Health, affiliated with Monash University. Specifically, the report found that “Infant massage that is responsive to the needs of the infant, provided by a parent or caregiver during the first year of life, might help to enhance infant personal–social behaviour and sleep, and lessen the duration of crying or fussing”.

Infant massage that is responsive to the needs of the infant is called Cue-Based Infant Massage “We have been delivering cue-based infant massage training to health professionals in Australia for over 22 years now” explained the CEO of Baby in Mind, Alice Campbell, “and are the only organisation providing nationally accredited training in this area.”

“We’ve trained and provided specialist skills to thousands of health workers from most major Australian hospitals, maternal-child health programs, child protection agencies, and almost all the major early intervention organisations in Australia, along with hundreds of other smaller units and organisations including neonatal intensive care units, disability services, domestic violence services, drug and alcohol agencies and many others.

“We also train ordinary mums and dads in the community, child care workers, and really just about anyone who has an interest in early parent-baby relationships to teach this skill to other parents. It is a genuine grass-roots program, and is just so rewarding to see that the potential benefits of this type of program are increasingly being picked up by high-level researchers and policy-makers at the national level.”

“Our program – called The First Touch Program – is a very simple program for health workers to deliver, and is typically very low-cost for organisations once staff have been trained. It can usually be integrated within existing budgets and services, and high-quality infant massage program can be very effective in promoting and establishing some of the early foundations for social and emotional development. Various evaluations of our First Touch Program have shown it works very well for families with mild-to-moderate struggles and, for families with more complex difficulties, it can contribute to some significant outcomes when coupled with other supports.”

“The First Program can also be quite easily adapted to a wide variety of health, community, and early childhood settings. We’ve been collecting program evaluation and evidence for years, but it is really exciting to see some of the international Randomised Controlled Trials and evidence-reviews now being picked up at this level in Australia” said Ms. Campbell.

Ms. Campbell explained that the research on infant massage has in the past been typically very difficult for reviewers to evaluate from an evidence-based perspective.

“Most of the research conducted in infant massage uses a diverse range of methods, duration and approach to education. For example, many of the infant massage approaches used in Australia are delivered by simply giving parents a few diagrams or are taught by people with no formal, accredited qualifications in infant massage education.

To use a crude example, it’s a bit like trying to form an evidence-based opinion about prevention of disease by combining data about medical vaccinations with studies on homeopathic treatments. In this same way, a lot of infant massage education given to parents is just chalk-and-cheese and can’t be combined in this way. In the past, this has made it extremely difficult for reviewers to compare and combine studies about infant massage to form evidence-based opinions and recommendations.

“Some of the previous international reviews in infant massage have identified this as a major flaw in the research, and this has spurred more recent research efforts to compare the relative effectiveness of different approaches in infant massage education,” said Ms. Campbell.

The findings of these comparative studies strongly suggest that approaches meeting or exceeding the cue-based approach developed by the International Association of Infant Massage(*) appear to be far more effective than other approaches – particularly in relation to early infant mental health outcomes.

This report represents an important milestone for Baby in Mind. Ms. Campbell believes that the recognition of infant-led infant massage by the NHMRC is a significant achievement for all of those who have quietly gone about the business of developing and contributing to the knowledge, evidence and standards of Cue-Based Infant Massage here in Australia for several decades. “Our people are quiet achievers.

“Our organisation receives no government funding at all, yet over the years we have won national and state award in child protection and violence prevention,  have contributed to numerous research projects, supported hundreds of health and community organisations building an early intervention culture, deal with constant demand and pressure for our services, and get our program to almost 50,000 families a year. All on the back of volunteers and self-raised funds. Having the work we do recognised at the level of the NHMRC is something we hope will help our people be more widely valued and recognised for their work for many more decades”

“Here at Baby in Mind we thrilled to be recently contacted by Professor Fisher’s team at the Jean Hailes Centre for Women’s Health, to explore some opportunities to support to some of their other projects. With this new report from the NHMRC, headed by Professor Fisher, we are hopeful that there will be opportunities to expand on the inclusion of Infant Massage in the latest NHMRC report, and that we will be able to contribute additional subject-matter expertise. We are particularly excited about the opportunity to disseminate some of the more nuanced, research-based information to health professionals demonstrating that there are certain characteristics in infant massage education which appear to play a significant role in the quality of outcomes for families. In the end, this will only help improve and increase the availability of evidence-based services to parents and babies in Australia”.

Cue-based infant massage in action: Lindie is a worker trained by Baby in Mind to use the First Touch cue-based baby massage program to reduce complex child protection risks and challenges:

(Original video via ABC Lateline)

*Baby in Mind is formerly the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM Australia) and the only organisation in Australia to deliver infant massage education that meets and exceeds the IAIM standards, as well as being the only provider of nationally accredited training in infant massage education.

To discover more about the role of touch in early infant development, Baby in Mind offer a free online course open to everyone.

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