The body shows stress through physical symptoms. This can be tiredness, muscle and skeletal tension, digestive issues, headaches and skin problems as well as exacerbating poor mental health. For babies, when stress is heaped upon stress with no time for relaxation, then learning processes can be blocked.
In babies, stress hormones can be passed through the placenta from the mother before a baby is even born and it has been shown that babies whose mothers were stressed during pregnancy can have a low birth weight, hyperactivity and irritability.
An insecure attachment with the primary caregiver is also related to higher stress levels in babies. Stress happens naturally through the course of the day such as meeting new people and being introduced to new experiences. This helps babies to learn and thrive but when the stress response is prolonged this is when problems can arise.
Stress is reduced when a caregiver sensitively responds and protects the baby from unnecessary stressors. We can also teach our babies how to respond to stress by relaxing the body through sensitive touch, baby carrying and baby massage. Massage and touch release feel good hormones, such as oxytocin, that help to reduce stress hormones in the blood which lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Baby massage increases our proximity to babies which also reduces stress.
Oxytocin belongs to the group of feel good hormones. It is associated with love and bonding as it’s released when people show they love one another physically through cuddling, touching or sex. It is designed to counteract the stress hormones once they’ve done their important jobs. Oxytocin is important in the postpartum period for women as it plays a role in the shrinking of the uterus and the manufacture and let down of milk- something that also helps increase a bond.
In nature, establishing a good bond is crucial for a few reasons. Bonding will mean that the mother animal will accept the baby and therefore the baby’s needs are more likely to be met. Bonding releases oxytocin so allows for the post partum body to heal and a good bond creates a healthy attachment between caregiver and baby therefore leading to better outcomes for the baby as they grow. Some evidence suggests that a lack of early bonding in infancy correlates with child abuse, neglect and failure to thrive syndrome as well as poor mental health, substance abuse and an inability to form healthy relationships with others in later life.
How baby massage can help
Baby massage is the ideal way to address stress in mothers and babies. It allows mother and baby to bond by sensitive and loving touch, releasing oxytocin. It allows mother and baby to get to know each other through eye contact, scent association and touch. Mothers find that baby massage will better help them learn their babies cues thereby helping them respond to their needs quickly and decreasing stress. Baby massage is a wonderfully relaxing time for both mother baby, reciprocally reducing stress by providing a relaxing space, nurturing touch and teaching babies relaxation through association.