ABINGDON, Va. — When Cheyenne Gardner of Lebanon, Virginia, gave birth to her son seven years ago, the new mother felt helpless when she couldn’t stop his frequent crying.

No matter what the mother did to comfort him, few things seemed to help during the first few months.

“We did formula changes and I tried rocking and walking with him,” she said.

“I wish I’d known about a gas and colic massage technique so I could have helped him more,” said Gardner, who recently was among twelve professionals throughout Southwest Virginia who enrolled in training to become certified to teach mothers about the benefits of infant massage.

Infant massage is an ancient practice that helps parents to comfort calm and soothe children.

The four-day training held at the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator in Abingdon last week, shed light on the rewards and numerous benefits of the massage techniques.

“It’s something new for me. It’s pretty neat,” said Candice Thomas, a young mother from Glade Spring, who brought her six-month-old baby, Xander, to help her learn the massage techniques.

During relaxed, hands-on instructions, the students and parents sat in a circle on the floor, learning from each other’s knowledge and experiences. Primarily using demonstration dolls, class facilitators taught the parents appropriate ways to massage their babies.

The students were a group of physical therapists, early intervention educators and other health professionals who will take what they learned back to their workplaces to help facilitate and enhance the relationships between infants and parents in their communities.

Plans are being made by many of the group members to offer the infant massage classes to the general public.

Rebecca Thompson, program director of Early Intervention Services at Highlands Community Services in Abingdon, worked to bring this training opportunity to the region to give professionals the knowledge and tools needed to support families, including those with babies born substance exposed or diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

“Thanks to Infant Massage USA and Linda Storm, the trainer, we now have 13 professionals in our region who will become Certified Educators of Infant Massage, including five from Highlands Infant & Toddler Connection Early Intervention team,” said Thompson.

“We hope to partner with other community agencies in the coming months to share this knowledge and offer support to additional families in our region.”

Infant Massage USA is the U.S. Chapter to the International Association of Infant Massage whose mission is to promote nurturing touch and communication through training, education, and research so that parents, caregivers and children are loved, valued, and respected throughout the United States and the world community.

“It’s such a wonderful skill to give to new parents,” said Linda Storm, a trainer with Infant Massage USA who facilitated the classes.

Profound results

“Infant massage is simplistic, but it has such profound results,” said Storm. “It’s an amazing tool for helping parents become closer to their babies.”

Storm said families that learn appropriate touch can build thriving relationships.

“We’re becoming a no-touch society,” said Storm. “People are not holding their babies enough now. They’re in containers. When they are in car seats, strollers, swings or walkers, they are disconnected and that’s not helping brain development.”

According to her, infant massage has positive effects on the nervous, circulatory, respiratory, elimination and immune systems.

Research has proven that infants who receive massage will experience improved sleep patterns and are more awake, alert and active during the day resulting in better learning. Infants who are massaged have better motor development.

Cortisol, a stress hormone, has been found to be lower in babies after infant massage.

Infant massage also helps fathers to bond with their children. Fathers who used the massage techniques had babies who greeted them with more eye contact, smiling and vocalizing.

Pre-mature and cocaine-exposed babies experienced increased daily weight gains and motor activity.

Benefits for parents

The parents benefit from infant massage, as well.

Infant massage helps to stimulate the release of oxytocin, known as the cuddle hormone, and prolactin, which promotes milk production, and other endorphins.

“Parents learn to understand and respond to their babies’ cues,” Storm said.

“Our program is cue driven,” she said. “It’s not done to the baby. It’s done with the baby. The key point is no one touches the baby without the baby giving consent. Even newborns can give cues of yes and no,” she said.

“In fact, yesterday we had a mother here who’d been doing some massage. She asked permission and the baby lifted his leg as if to say ‘start here.’ They learn very quickly what this is all about.”

An ancient art

Mothers have been massaging their babies for generations.

In fact, according to Vimala McClure, author of “Infant Massage, A Handbook for Loving Parents,” infant massage is an ancient art. Through the simple technique, parents learn to connect with their babies while learning to understand their baby’s non-verbal language.

The International Association of Infant Massage was founded in 1976 by McClure, who worked with parents and babies using the ancient practice of infant massage.

“She had been working in India as a Peace Corps representative and saw how babies in the orphanages were massaged by the older girls and how happy and healthy they were,” explained Storm. “Although these babies didn’t have enough to eat, they thrived on this family bonding.”

Sharing the knowledge

Students in the training who completed the recent class work must complete an exam and practicum before becoming a Certified Educator of Infant Massage.

Ann Ledgerwood, a pediatric physical therapist working with families in Smyth and Washington counties, was among the professionals who enrolled in the training and plans to pursue additional work to receive certification.

“Many of us work with babies through early intervention programs and as a result of this training, we will be able to teach parents the benefits of infant massage,” said Ledgerwood. “As practitioners, we will be able to help parents learn to better read their babies’ cues.”

Dia Rife, a physical therapist, traveled from Grundy, Virginia, to attend the training. She plans to incorporate the training on infant massage into the care of her special needs clients at her workplace. As a self-contractor, Rife works for Buchanan County School System and Cumberland Mountain Community Services.

“I can’t wait to teach these skills to parents. We have special needs children who are hospitalized often and they lose some of that bonding. This will be a great way to help parents feel more confident,” Rife said.

Gardner is excited to teach infant massage to other parents who need the help, just as she did seven years ago when her son was born. She plans to share the benefits of infant massage with her clients at Cumberland Mountain Community Services in Russell and Tazewell counties.

“The instruction has really helped me to realize how something as simple as touch can help a mother and baby bond, as well as help the development of the baby’s brain,” said Gardner.

Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at news@washconews.com.

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