Sleep Problems and Babies: How Massage Can Assist Your Baby to Sleep
You are not alone! However coined the term “sleep like a baby” must be one of the lucky ones whose baby slept through the night from an early age (or maybe they didn’t have children!). Up to 29 percent(1) of infants experience sleep disturbance and waking during the night by the third month. Sleep problems such as difficulty in falling asleep and night waking may affect up to 35 percent of infants and toddlers(1). How much stimulation an infant receives during the day plays a major part in how efficient they are able to organise their sleep state. Overstimulation can be disruptive to an infant’s sleep. There are many techniques you can use to help settle your little one, but most important is establishing a soothing bedtime routine(2); one that your baby will become familiar with and one that involves working around the same bedtime and routine each night. This indicates to your baby that bedtime is approaching. Babies learn through repetition as repetition builds strong pathways (connections) in your baby’s brain (called synapses). Your baby will feel safe and secure with a familiar routine, especially a soothing and calming one.
Oxytocin and Melatonin in relation to sleep:
Calming your child’s brain releases the hormone oxytocin and the sleep hormone melatonin(2). Oxytocin is a hormone that has many wonderful benefits for your child. It is only released through touch; massaging your baby is the most effective way for your baby to receive the many positive physical effects associated with oxytocin such as improved sleep, balancing blood pressure and relaxation. It is important to learn how to massage your baby correctly (from a certified infant massage instructor such as Natalie Garmson, see http://www.kidsmassage.com.au/ ). Applying the wrong pressure or incorrect technique could increase your baby’s crying or discomfort, only making it worse. Massaging your baby is a skill that is easy to learn. It is fun for both you and your baby and can quite easily fit into your daily routine. Even better, the benefits of massage are felt immediately!
Melatonin is sometimes called the sleep hormone. It is stimulated by a calm environment, low levels of light, soft music or a soft voice. Together, oxytocin and melatonin create the right balance to help regulate your child’s brain to prepare them for sleep. When it is your baby’s bedtime, your role as a parent is to create a relaxing environment, provide lots of reassurance through cuddles, reading a book and through calming touch such as massage. This is an example of a lovely soothing routine to help your child sleep longer and will assist their circadian rhythms (or ‘body clock’) (3). This is why children love routine!
(Please note: whilst massage is a wonderful activity you can do with your baby after a bath, it must be noted that massage after a bath is not recommended for infants under the age of 5 months, as massage is too stimulating for your newborn's nervous system. An alternative is to incorporate massage after your newborn’s daytime nap, often referred to as the ‘quiet alert’ stage).
Massage vs Rocking (Study):
A study was conducted to compare rocking verses massage as a technique to assist babies in falling asleep(1). It was observed that those infants who were massaged were awake whilst being massaged and fell asleep afterwards, whilst the group of infants who were rocked fell asleep whilst being rocked but woke when the rocking ceased. It was also noted that those infants who received massage (as compared to rocking) cried less, had lower stress hormones (through salivary cortisol levels) and showed greater improvement emotionally and socially. Reducing your baby’s stress hormone levels also contributes to an improved immune system. Another point to note is in relation to your baby's sleep association, meaning what they associate or relate going to sleep with. An example is rocking your baby to sleep, as observed in the study, interupts your child's ability to learn how to self soothe themself to sleep.
Sleep problems and babies who cry themselves to sleep:
Your baby cannot simply relax after over-exhaustion or stimulating play. They require your help to relax and adjust their brain chemistry to release oxytocin. Leaving your baby to cry themselves to sleep (note: referring to a 'distressed' cry) means that their stress levels (influenced by the stress hormone cortisol) remain increased in their system(2). High cortisol in your baby’s system when they fall asleep means there is a greater chance they will wake during the night(3). There are many factors that may contribute to your child’s sleep problems, during the first year it is usually related to developmental issues such as teething. At around 3 to 6 months of age, your baby will start to organise its sleep/wake cycle and it may not be until they are 8 months of age that they start to sleep through the night(1). Remember that every child is an individual and influenced partly by nature (their genetic ‘make-up’) and partly by nurture (their surrounding environment and how you nurture and care for them). What you ultimately wish for is a healthy child who sleeps well. It is in the deep sleep (or restorative sleep) state that your child releases growth hormones. Deep sleep also contributes to a strong immune system. Massaging your child on a daily basis and establishing a soothing bedtime routine will assist their health, wellbeing and development. Don’t wait until next week to learn the art of infant massage…. start today!
(1) Field, T. The Amazing Infant, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, Oxford, U.K. p251, 261-3
(2) Sunderland,M. The Science of Parenting, DK Publishing Ltd, London, U.K, 2006, p 66-9, 78-9.
(3) Underdown, A. Barlow,J. Chung,V. Stewart-Brown,S. Massage Intervention for Promoting Mental and Physical Health in Infants Ages Under Six Months, The Cochrane Collaboration, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2008. Issue 4.
Further recommended reading:
Touch Research Institute, Miami, USA.