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A touch of love



Create healthier, happier babies with infant massage


When Zachary was born four weeks premature, he weighed just 5 pounds, 15 ounces. His mother, Dawn Kessler, felt helpless when she saw her tiny son hooked up to tubes and wires. "He was in the NICU for his first week of life. He was in a CPAP [Continuous Positive Airway Pressure] machine for one and a half days, and I couldn't touch him.

"I didn't know what to do. I had to stand back and let the nurses take over. He was so tiny I was afraid to touch him."

Although Zachary was strong enough to go home just a week after he was born, he continued to have health issues. "He's a fussy eater," says Kessler, a high school special education teacher who lives in Purdes. "He gets tense and starts spitting up, which lead to acid reflux."

Kessler put Zachary into speech therapy to help with the reflux, and later started physical therapy because he clasped his toes and had trouble sleeping.

When Zachary was four months old, Kessler learned about an infant massage class through her physical therapist. She says there were several reasons for her desire to enroll in the class. "I wanted to bond because I missed out on that first week [when he was in the NICU]. It would have been good to know how to touch him, and massage his arms and legs," she says. She says she also saw massage as a way of relieving any tension and discomfort Zachary might be experiencing.

When the class was over four weeks later, Kessler says she noticed a profound difference. "The results have been tremendous," she says. "It helps not just his digestion but his relaxation. It's far better than any birth preparation class I've taken."

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So what's so great about massage for babies? According to Susan Swiat, a pediatric physical therapist and a certified educator of infant massage at Ages & Stages therapeutic and educational services in Middletown, a parent's touch provides comfort, security and a host of health benefits for infants. Swiat says that not only can massage, performed on a regular basis, strengthen the parent-child bond, it has been found to ease colic, promote deeper and longer sleep, soothe emotional stress and strengthen baby's immune system - all huge pluses for parents.

Tara O'Neil, LMT of Cornwall Therapeutic Massage, who performs touch therapy on premature and medically fragile babies, says that massage is especially beneficial for preemies. "In hospitals they are constantly being poked, examined, and having tests done - it's overload," she says. "Massage helps babies relax."

O'Neil also cites an eight-year study by Heidelise Als, PhD, director of Neurobehavioral Infant and Child Studies at Children's Hospital Boston, which found that infant massage provided more weight gain and greater neurological development.

Massage has plenty of emotional perks for baby as well. "It strengthens baby's mind-body connection," says Swiat. Even at this early age an infant will learn relaxation techniques that can be helpful in stressful situations later in life.

"Baby also has more body awareness because you name body parts during the massage," says Swiat, adding that babies learn good touch/bad touch early on. "They learn that they have control over how when and how they are touched."

There is increased body awareness for parents, too. "Massage enables parents to more easily read an infant's cues," explains Swiat. "Parents learn when baby is alert and ready for the experience (he may avoid making eye contact when he's not interested. They get to know baby really well and can report changes to their pediatrician, because you know when baby is sick."

Learning how to read her daughter Hailey's body signals is what drew Darlene Korpai of Bloomingburg to Swiat's infant massage class when Hailey was just a few months old. Hailey (check spelling), now 14-month-old, has achondroplasia, a common form of dwarfism.

"She has a harder time breathing because the tubing through her face is so much smaller," explains Korpai, "so I thought massage on her face would help move fluids. She also has labored respiratory issues, so I thought massage on her back would help."

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Because of her daughter's special health concerns, Korpai says Sue Swiat, who has worked with children with special needs for more than 25 years, was especially helpful in helping her find positions that were comfortable for Hailey's fragile body. "She has curvature of the spine, so I have to be very careful handling her spine and protecting her neck."

While she acknowledges that massage, which has been found to relieve sinus and chest congestion, won't help her daughter's health issues completely, Korpai says she has seen marked improvement in her daughter's breathing - and feels a stronger bond between her and Hailey.

"She was in the hospital for a week after she was born, and was hooked up to wires," Korpai says. After her traumatic start to life, Hailey continues to face regular visits to a specialist in Delaware. Yet Korpai firmly believes her daughter is soothed by her touch during massage. "It helps calm her down a lot, especially when she has tests that she doesn't like," says Korpai.

Like most new moms, Korpai tries to find a method that works to soothe her young daughter's aches and pains, but massage seems to work best in most situations. "You try different things when she has a tummy ache or gas pains, but we always go back to [massage]."

She says massage may help Hailey as she grows. "She is more prone to arthritis and aches, and [massage] will help with that down the line, especially when she hits the teen years," says Korpai.

Swiat stresses that infant massage is for all babies, not just those with special needs.

Wendy Memmelaar of Bullville brought her daughter Karly to Swiat's class when Karly was about 8 weeks old. "I have a perfectly healthy little girl," she says. "Some of the other moms had children with digestive problems or other health issues, so they had more to gain from the experience. For me it was one-on-one time - my 3-year-old had just started preschool - and a chance to learn relaxation techniques. It still calms her in a way that we wouldn't have known to do before.

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"First-time moms are afraid to touch their babies because they seem so fragile," adds Memmelaar. "I wouldn't have touched my older daughter Lauren the way I do with Karly. [Infant massage] should be something offered in the hospital after birth, so parents learn that it's OK to touch your baby, and give you the confidence and skills to touch and soothe your child in a way only you can."

Like Kessler and Korpai, Memmelaar says she's made massage a part of her child's bedtime routine, but uses it whenever her daughter is upset or having trouble falling asleep. But it's not just mom's job. "My husband rubs her feet and gets her to sleep. He thinks it's his thing to get her to sleep."

Kessler taught her paramedic husband the massage techniques she learned each week, so he could use them too. "It helped him bond with his son, since he only saw him at night."

Memmelaar's older daughter Lauren was eager to get involved too. "While I nursed, she would rub the baby's feet. It made it more fun and easier to accept this new little one."