Cue-based Baby Massage is the central, defining element of the First Touch Program. This provides the purpose and focus for parents attending the program and offers the perfect setting to support parents to gain confidence in interacting and communicating with their infant.
The Importance of Cue-Based Infant Massage
There are dozens of different approaches and styles for teaching infant massage to parents, with each varying in its effectiveness and safety.
Our organisation, Baby in Mind, specialises in a type of infant massage known as cue-based infant massage. This is believed to be the approach most likely to lead to good outcomes for parents and babies (Underdown & Barlow, 2011).
Unlike the remedial or therapeutic massage for adults that most people are familar with, cue-based infant massage has nothing do with treating or fixing any particular problem. Cue-based infant massage is not a “day spa” treatment for babies.
What is Cue-Based Infant Massage?
Babies depend on interactions of touch, voice, movement, eye contact and facial expressions with others, to gain information and learn about their social world.
Babies, in turn, respond to this communication back to their parent through different vocalisations, facial expressions and other cues…to which the parent responds back again.
This conversation or “dance” between parents and babies is something that child development experts call serve-and-return.
Our First Touch Program uses cue-based infant massage to build on this serve-and-return interaction between parents and babies.
How does cue-based infant massage benefit babies?
On the surface, the Baby in Mind First Touch Program offers a friendly, relaxed and fun activity for parents to do with babies. However, the simple, non-threatening activities in the First Touch Program provide a gateway to meet some significant child development needs.
Researchers have known for quite some time that adequate amounts of healthy touch in infancy and early childhood are crucial for the physical and social development of babies (Ardiel & Rankin, 2010; Stack in Bremmer & Fogel, 2001). Babies who do not receive adequate amounts of healthy touch can develop a medical condition known as failure-to-thrive. In the worst case scenarios (as we see in some overseas orphanages) lack of healthy, interactive touch can result in developmental delays, brain damage or even death.
The exact reasons for the importance of touch have, however, not been understood until more recently as researchers have begun to discover that the serve-and-return interactions (voice, movement, and eye-contact and particularly healthy touch) are the mechanisms that enable a baby to regulate (maintain) their emotional arousal and essential bodily functions (like heart rate) (Schore, 2001).
This regulation is fundamental to early mental health and physical development because – when babies are well-regulated, the toxic stress hormones that stunt brain development are kept at bay (Schore, 2001; American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011). This provides the best possible chance for babies to establish the brain foundations needed for later mental health, cognitive and social development (Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child, 2014; Shonkoff, et al., 2011).
The serve-and-return interactions which our cue-based infant massage program builds, are believed to be one of the crucial keys underpinning all future brain development.
Is cue-based infant massage good for parents too?
Serve-and-return might be a “natural” process but (just like breastfeeding) does not always come easily to everyone. Most of us can relate to the feeling of frustration, confusion or overwhelm most of us have at one time or another, from trying to decipher and understand what a new baby is “saying” with their cries, settling difficulties and other behaviours.
Therefore, in the First Touch baby massage program, the instructor supports parents to build their own understanding of their individual baby’s cues, body language, vocalisations and other signals they use to “talk”. A Baby in Mind educator doesn’t just give a photocopied list of a few tired or hunger signs: every baby is very different so we believe that giving out a few “one-size-fits-all” descriptions of infant signs are not enough (and can even be counter productive if a parent is having additional difficulties interpreting their baby’s signals).
In addition, babies communicate a whole lot more than just tiredness or hunger through their body language. For this reason, the First Touch Program is less about how to “do” baby massage. Instead, the educators supports parents to notice and understand their baby’s cues, and then to adapt and modify their touch, voice, movement and eye-contact in response to their baby’s needs.
This is where the most parents find the immediate value of taking the cue-based First Touch program: having individualised, high quality support to help understand and explore their baby’s own unique (and often complex) cues and signals, and to explore what they might mean.
Are there other benefits?
Quite a lot is now known and understood about the long-term benefits of programs supporting parents’ understanding of infant cues. For example, studies with pre-term babies have found that just a few hours of cue-based education for parents during infancy improves cognitive and social outcomes at age five (Norhov, et al, 2011).
Other reviews find one of the best ways to reduce (or even eliminate) some of the earliest risks for later developmental and mental health issues is to provide programs which support parent sensitivity to their baby’s cues (Bakermans-Kranenburg, van IJzendoorn & Juffer, 2005) with effects on even brain development observed (Milgrom, et al., 2010).