The benefits of baby massage for infants with a visual impairment
Baby massage is beneficial for both infants and their parents, but it is particularly valuable for children who have a visual impairment as it promotes communication through touch.
In this blog, the specially-trained staff in our Children and Young People's team discuss the benefits of baby massage for infants with sight loss...
What is baby massage and what are the general benefits?
Baby massage is the gentle, rhythmic stroking of your baby’s body, using your hands.
This ancient tradition has been practised in many cultures throughout the world and has been proven to have many benefits, including positive effects on the child’s development.
Infant massage is something that all parents and carers can get involved with and fulfils one of the basic human needs for touch.
Other general benefits include improving gastrointestinal functioning, improving circulation, relieving teething discomfort, stimulating weight gain, strengthening muscle tone, and sparking brain development. Additionally, it helps new parents to bond with their baby, right from being newborn, as you can start light massage techniques right from the day you bring your baby home.
It may even help you establish a routine and learn your baby’s calm times of the day. You can closely observe and therefore understand the signals shown to you by your baby, enhancing communication and bonding. You can learn what your baby likes and dislikes, depending on how they respond to your touch and develop ways to soothe them when they are upset.
Specific benefits of massage for children with a visual impairment
Babies and infants make sense of the world around them by interpreting information through sensory experiences, including touch. Depending on the degree of vision, touch may be the main way the baby senses the world, so infant massage can become an important experience.
The sense of touch may also be the most reliable avenue to help connect a visually impaired baby to their parents or caregivers.
Language and communication
Due to the decreased information through vision, massage is an ideal way of providing tactile experiences in a safe, calm environment from a very young age. Face-to-face close contact when massaging can help a child with low vision to recognise your face and begin the very important, pre-linguistic early communication.
The predictable routine of massage allows babies to anticipate events and reinforce their early communication efforts. Even though infants cannot speak, they are constantly communicating with their bodies.
During the massage is a perfect time to build on this early communication by talking and explaining what you are doing and observing their response. For example, you will know your child is engaged if they are smiling, looking at your face if they have some vision, reaching out and raising the head. If they are disengaged, they might pull away, cry and be fussy at your touch, frown and turn the head away. This reciprocal interaction between yourself and your infant teaches them that their response will in turn provoke a response from you – the very basis of communication!
Massage is particularly beneficial when developing touch and tactile exploration, as this is an area which can provide additional difficulties for children with low or no vision. A sighted child will anticipate touch and tactile interactions and, perhaps reach out a hand to an adult’s hand or an object. They will, in turn, learn to put out their hand if an adult puts out their hand to hold, reinforcing these natural tactile moments. Massage for babies with a visual impairment can help to create such moments between parent and child, and give cues to babies with a visual impairment about non-verbal ways in which people communicate.
Developing other senses
Once a regular massage routine is established, you could also try adding in smells, using essential oils or creams and maybe even introduce a massage song; however, it is not recommended that you use oils or creams on your baby for at least the first month. You will get to know what your baby tolerates and likes and teach them the importance of using senses other than their sight. Some babies may be touch-resistant, so this should be built up slowly to avoid overloading their senses.
Babies with low or no vision often have difficulties with sleep; either trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or both! Our body’s internal clock is naturally set to a 24-hour sleep cycle and with cues from light we can fall asleep. When we wake up, light cues our 24-hour clock to reset. For babies with low or no vision, this lack of natural light cause sleep disturbances. Research suggests that massaging your baby regularly may help to get their circadian rhythms on track, meaning they will sleep more at night and be more active during the day. A gentle massage as part of a bedtime routine can also signal bedtime and prepare your child for sleep.
Awareness of body parts
Infant massage may provide information to a baby with a visual impairment about their body. Regular, soothing touch, along with explaining what and where you are massaging, may help them increase their self-awareness about their whole body, therefore improving their ability to play with their own body. For example, it may encourage them to reach for their feet, or an object that they can hear. A baby can also start to learn where body parts are in relation to each other and create a whole-body awareness.
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