The Gentle Art Of Baby Massage

Benefits of baby massage

Baby massage helps both parent and child because:

  • It’s a bonding experience
  • A good way for you and your baby to get to know each other and to spend quality time together.
  • Studies have suggested that physical contact is good for babies, improving their breathing, circulation, digestion and growth.
  • It provides a good source of sensory and muscle stimulation.
  • It may help to combat postnatal depression in mothers by encouraging the bonding process.
  • It relaxes both parent and child.
  • It helps to provide a smooth transition from the womb to the outside world and is particularly beneficial to premature babies. Several studies have shown that babies who receive massage put on weight more quickly.
  • Massage is a gentle and effective option for coping with colic, a problem often encountered in babies less than 4 months.


  • The neck is a tricky location and best avoided on very young babies until they fully develop control of their neck muscles.
  • If your baby has had or has an umbilical hernia, be careful when massaging the abdomen.
  • When adding movement to the massage; for instance, when bicycling the baby’s legs never push past the baby’s resistance.
  • If you have any concerns about massaging your baby, especially if your baby is sick, you should consult an appropriate health professional first. Never massage a baby if the baby seems uncomfortable.

Tips for a relaxed baby massage

  • Do the massage when your baby is quiet, alert and well-rested. After a sleep is often a good time.
  • Pay attention to your baby’s cues. Both of you should enjoy the experience and there’s no need to feel pressured to do a complete massage. You’ll be able to tell if your baby is enjoying the massage by watching facial expressions, noting any startle reflexes, and tuning in to how your baby responds to the strokes.
  • Take your time during the massage. A hand cradling the top of the baby’s head or holding your hand on the tummy or back reassures your baby and allows for a break from the strokes.
  • Only use the strokes your baby enjoys, play while you massage and always stop when it’s clear that your baby has had enough
  • Remember that you don’t have to do an entire massage to help relax your baby. A few simple strokes while holding or rocking can do wonders to calm a baby. Nurturing touch is what you are aiming for, not a perfectly choreographed routine. After you’ve finished massaging your baby, you can put a nappy on, wrap in a warm blanket and spend a few more minutes together cuddling. This completes the process with security, especially if trying massage for the first time.
Baby massage is best performed on the floor. It's safer for baby and allows for close interaction.

Setting up

You will need:

  • Some massage oil: Make sure that the oil is suitable to use on a baby. Most massage oils including those sold as ‘baby massage oil’tend to include a fragrance. Chances are that your baby will end up ingesting some oil, for instance by putting their massaged hands in their mouth, so you really want to make sure it is safe. A simple oil like olive or apricot kernel oil is best, but if in doubt it is a good idea to ask for advice before buying. It is advisable to avoid nut oils because of the possibility of severe allergic reactions.
  • A warm room: Your baby is going to be stripped right down to the skin and therefore needs to be in a warm environment. Babies are not good at regulating their body temperature and cool down much quicker than adults do. Before you begin, consider getting an extra heater going in the room and close all doors and windows. Watch out for draughts, especially if massaging on the floor. Make sure that your clothing is as comfortable as possible.
  • A comfortable surface: You need something soft and warm for your baby to lie on. At the same time the surface needs to be able to cope with accidents since your baby is going to be without a nappy. Something like a thick towel on top of a lamb skin or plastic covered change mats would be ideal. Have a spare nappy close by just in case. You also need a safe place to put your massage oil. You can use it from a bottle or put a little in small shallow bowel. Keep it away from carpets and soft furnishings to avoid stains.
  • A chunk of time: Try to pick a time when you will not be disturbed and you and your baby can both relax. For your baby, it should not be too soon after a feed or so close to a meal that the baby will be hungry and distracted. Don’t pick a time when your baby is really tired. After bath time can be a good idea, provided your baby is not too sleepy. Also make sure that you pick a time when you can put aside your own needs and thoughts. Your baby relies on non-verbal communication and will pick up on your mood if you are tense. If you relax and your baby will find it easier to relax. Try to set aside around ten to twenty minutes for a baby massage.
  • A relaxing atmosphere: Create a calm, relaxing environment. If you want something on in the background you could play some gentle instrumental music. Dimming the lights or lighting a candle might also help.

Some general rules

  • Baby massage strokes and technique can be quite different from adult massage.
  • Baby massage should never be too deep nor be so light as to tickle the baby. Of course you need to be most gentle on tiny newborn babies. A standard recommendation is to place your finger on your closed eyelid and press lightly, stopping before it feels uncomfortable. Use this as a gauge for how much strength to use on a newborn baby. For older babies, be quite firm as babies prefer confident handling. As you massage your baby more often, you will get to know what type of pressure is good for them. Just keep watching your baby for reactions.
  • On the abdominal area, always massage in a clock wise direction. This follows the direction of flow in the digestive system, so that you are working with the baby’s organs not against them.

Beginning the massage

  • Make sure you are comfortable and relaxed and that you have everything close by.
  • Do a bit of deep slow breathing to make sure you’re not tense. Undress your baby.
  • Give your baby a cue that you are about to give a massage such as “Are you ready for a massage now?”.
  • Don’t take it for granted that baby will want a massage, because at some point they may not. If your baby shows signs that he is not happy for a massage, don’t do it.
  • Try again at another time. Your baby needs to be relaxed for a massage.
  • Place your baby on his back with his feet towards you.
  • Warm up: shake your hands or rub them together to loosen them up and to get them nice and warm. No one likes icy cold hands massaging them. Put some oil on your hands and hold the oil in your palm for a few seconds to gently warm it before touching your baby. This is another cue for your baby that there is a massage on the way.

Standard Strokes

These are the strokes mentioned in the massage routine suggestions. They can be used on many different parts of the body.

Open Book (Used on flat body parts such as the chest, back and forehead). 

Place your hands together palm to palm, in a ‘praying’ gesture, with your fingertips pointing towards the baby’s head, your thumbs pointing up. Imagine that your hands are a closed book, and your thumbs are the spine. Place your little fingers against the baby’s skin and ‘open’ the book by spreading your hands, until your thumbs – still touching each other – reach the baby’s skin. Separate your hands and continue to move them outward across your baby in one smooth motion.

Milking (Used on Arms and Legs)

Milking technique used on baby's leg

Starting at the end of the limb (the wrist or ankle) and squeezing gently, move your hand up towards the body. Imagine that you are milking a cow, or squeezing the filling out of a sausage. Do this as a continuous stroking effect. This is a Swedish massage variation on the traditional Indian technique which starts close to the body and goes to the end of the limb. It is considered safer for the baby’s developing blood vessels to milk from the end of the limb towards the body so that you are not pushing blood through closed valves.

Rolling (Used on Arms and Legs) Place your non-writing hand under the limb and your main hand above. Roll the limb

The rolling technique used on the leg

between the hands – you’ll probably find you do this by moving your main hand rapidly and your other hand hardly moves at all. Then move gradually up the limb towards the body.

A sample massage routine

  • Remember that you don’t have to do the whole routine in one session.
  • Some people find it helpful to practice first on a doll or teddy bear before baby.
  • Different babies enjoy different things, so feel free to adapt the order of these sections, or miss out the parts of a routine your baby doesn’t appear to enjoy.
  • To start with, try doing each major stroke five times
  • strokes on the hands and feet tend to be repeated five times anyway – one for each finger or toe.

Chest and Stomach

  • Open book on the baby’s chest, spreading out around the baby’s ribcage and under the arms.
  • Open book again on the baby’s chest, but this time going up to the collar bone.

Shoulders and tops of arms

  • Stroking the neck – place your hand diagonally on the centre of your baby’s chest, so that your fingertips point to one shoulder. Push your hand up and over the shoulder so that your fingers go under the chin and into the crease against your baby’s neck. Do the same with the other hand on the opposite shoulder.
  • Place two fingers of your main hand at the very top of your baby’s right thigh, and run them up, under the curve of the ribcage, and down to the same point on the left side. You should have drawn the shape of an arched window, or an upside down ‘U’.
  • Place the side of your curved hand in the arch under the ribcage, and bring it down towards the groin, as if you were scooping a hole in sand. Do this five times with each hand and then again with your main hand, holding the baby’s legs up with the other.
  • Hold your hand so that the palm is above, but not touching, the baby’s groin and the upper half of all the fingers is resting on the point at the very top of the baby’s right thigh so that your hand is diagonal to the baby’s body. Turn your wrist and sweep your hand around until your fingertips touch the same point on the left thigh, keeping your palm in roughly the same place, just twisting on the spot. Your fingertips should then have drawn a low, round arch. As one hand reaches the end of this arch, start the other off on the same path, so that one hand follows the other, over and over.
  • Starting at the baby’s right side, walk your fingers in a horizontal line just above the belly button, then slide back.
  • Place your thumbs together and stretch your palms out, as if you were pretending your hands are a bird. Place your thumbs on the centre of the baby’s stomach and wrap your hands around the waist. The tips of your thumbs should come up just above the belly button. Then separate your thumbs, stroking across the stomach and round the baby’s sides.

Arms and Hands

  • Milk the arm, making sure you get into all the creases, especially behind the elbow.Roll the arm.
  • Stroke the back of the hand, starting at the wrist and going down over the top of each finger in turn.Do the same on the palm of the hand.
  • As you reach the tip of each finger, give it a little roll between your fingers.Draw small circles around the knobbly wrist bone
  • Armpit – raise your baby’s arm above their head and flat onto the towel. If your baby stiffens their arm, try jiggling it gently from the elbow until they relax. With your other hand stroke down the inside of the upper arm and into the cavity of the armpit, and off.
  • Make sure this one touch is firm so that it does not tickle.
  • Holding your baby by the wrist, take one arm down to the baby’s side, then up and across to the opposite collarbone, in the style of a Roman salute. Make sure you return the arm to the baby’s side afterwards and do this five times with each hand. Now take a wrist in one hand and the opposite foot in the other. Bring the two together, meeting somewhere over the baby’s belly button, making sure that you return both limbs to the ground between movements and repeat five times with each side.
  • You can use a bit of flexing at the wrists. Point the fingertips, then bend them back to a comfortable angle. Do not try to push too hard.

Legs and Feet

  • Bring knees together and up into the tummy, then stretch them out straight. Gently bicycle the legs, pushing one, then the other knee into his tummy.
  •  Start with the left leg – milk the leg, making sure you get into all the creases, especially behind the knee, then roll the leg.
  •  Squeeze and twist the leg, in the style of a ‘Chinese burn’ but gently and with plenty of oil. Work your way down the leg.
  •  Stroke the top of the foot, going down over the top of each toe in turn.
  •  Do the same on the base of the foot, starting at the heel. As you reach each toe, give it a little roll between your fingers – this can be quite difficult if your fingers are slippery! If your baby has their toes curled over, try putting your thumb at the base of the toes and pushing gently and repeatedly, until they relax.
  • Use your thumb to press in all over the base of the foot.
  •  Draw small circles around the ankle bone on the outside of the leg. 
  • At the wrists and ankles, you can use a bit of flexing. Point the fingertips and toes and then bend them back to a comfortable angle. Do not try to push too hard and, by all means, if your baby doesn’t approve stop and try a something else.
  • Then switch to the right leg and do the same .
  • Place the palm of each hand at the top of a thigh, with the side of your index finger in the crease between thigh and stomach. Stroke inwards down the side of the groin.
  • Place one hand under each buttock and massage it, then bring your hand out along the underneath of the leg and down to the feet, pulling ever so gently. Give a little shake and then let go when you get to the feet.


  • Lift one ankle and bend the knee so that the back of the heel of that foot touches the inside of the knee of the other leg – as if your baby was hopping. Repeat five times with each foot and then alternate left and right feet. Finally, cross legs to knees left over right and right over left, and repeat five times.
  • Bring the knees together and up to the tummy then stretch them out straight. You can also make a cycling type motion with the legs, pushing one, then the other knee into his tummy. This will help tremendously if your baby is troubled by wind.

Face and Head

  • Some babies don’t like to have their face massaged. If your baby doesn’t want it, just skip this section and move on to the back.
  •  Most of the following strokes use the tips of the first two fingers of each hand, working symmetrically on both sides of the face at the same time.
  •  Use the open book technique on the forehead, but just using the upper half of your fingers.
  • Use your thumbs to stretch the forehead gently, pulling outwards from the centre.
  • Draw the tips of your forefingers down the jawbone from the front of the ear until your fingers meet on the chin.
  • Draw small circles on the skin above the hinge of the jaw in front of the ears.
  • Stroke from the bridge of the nose, down the sides of the nose and across the cheekbones.
  • Stroke from the bridge of the nose along the eyebrows.
  • Run the pads of your thumbs gently down from the centre of the eyebrow and over the eyelid, closing the eyes in the process. Some parents even swear by this as a way of encouraging sleep!
  • Stroke the top lip, finishing in an upward stroke, making the shape of a smile.
  • Do the same with the lower lip. – Run a fingertip around the inside of the curve of the ear, top to bottom, and then without breaking contact, round the outside of the back of the ear, again top to bottom.
  • Run the flat of all your fingers from the temples, up and round the side of the head, down behind the ears and along the jawbone, so that your hands meet at the tip of the chin.

The Back 

  • Turn your baby over to lie on its tummy. Some babies love this, while others hate it,  it often depends on their age and upper body strength. If your baby won’t lie happily on the front, you can try holding him to your chest with their head lying on or over your shoulder. Or, if baby is old enough you could try it sitting up, perhaps in the crook of your leg to hold baby steady.
  • Use the open book technique, down below their arms onto their ribs, and up over their shoulders.
  • Lay both palms perpendicular to the baby’s spine and move your hands back and forth, working your way gradually down to the small of the back.
  • Use the tips of two fingers to draw small circles all over the back, working roughly from top to bottom. Try to draw the circles by shifting the skin, rather than moving your fingers over the skin.
  • Use the tip of all the fingers on one hand to come down the spine, and in a curve from the outer edge of the shoulders and down the spine. If your baby is lying down you can continue these strokes over the bottom and down the legs. Finish your massage with a cuddle.