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Mother's massage can provide touch of relief for some babies

I felt a little guilty taking Olivia to get an infant massage. Since she's a happy, plump baby I thought it was more of a frivolous treat than something she really needed.

The image of a little baby getting a rubdown after a long, hard day of sleeping and eating is a little funny.

But for many babies who are born premature or suffer from colic, infant massage can be a vital part of their routine. A recent study at the University of Miami Touch Research Institute found that premature babies who were massaged daily gained 47 percent more weight than babies who were not.

Mindy Zlotnick of San Francisco, a board member of the National Association of Infant Massage, is also a foster parent who has cared for 18 babies over the past six years.

"They usually have medical problems, whether from being exposed to drugs or developmental delays or seizure disorders," she said. "We massage all our babies and across the board it has been very effective. It allows us to get to know the baby and gives the baby a mechanism within which to get to know us."

Infant massage has two main effects on a baby's body, said Lori Price, the infant massage instructor we went to. It can increase circulation and provide added stimulation for the nervous system.

"It optimizes the internal environment so that muscle tissue and nervous tissue and all internal tissues function at the highest level possible," she said. While a body will obviously function without the massage, Price said massage enhances it.

Infant massage instructors such as Price do not routinely massage the babies themselves. Instead they teach parents how to do it, because along with the physical development comes relationship development.

She charged me $35 for a 45-minute session at the Carrollwood office she shares with Sue Welfley. I learned the primary techniques including "milking" of the arms and legs and a series of special rubs for the chest and tummy. During a second $35 session, Price moves on to the face, mouth, head and back.

She also recommends the bible of infant massage, Infant Massage, a Handbook for Loving Parents by Vimala McClure.

For a medical opinion I called Salvador Badillo, a pediatrician on N Dale Mabry Highway.

"With the premature babies, there are studies saying tactile stimulation is so important for the babies' development," he said. "I think just tender loving helps them mature, so the more types of stimulation you give them helps."

But he said he would caution parents who believe infant massage can cure infections. "You have to be careful not to overestimate what it can do."

Parents should also know that massage can overstimulate babies with certain heart conditions.

But Badillo recommends infant massage frequently for babies with colic.

Price said she has seen it work wonders in that area. One mother recently saw her son become much happier after a few days of massage.

"She told me she had started to learn some of her son's other cries," Price recounted. "Up to that point the only cry she ever heard was his misery cry."

Massage is believed to help move material through a baby's lower intestine, remove gas buildup and alleviate pain.

It also can help babies sleep. Zlotnick told me about a baby she has worked with who would only take 10- and 15-minute catnaps throughout the day. The little girl has a feeding tube in her stomach and seemed more comfortable sitting up, never lying on her back.

After her mother started massaging her back the baby started to relax more and take 45-minute naps. The mother could place her in her crib on her back and she would remain asleep.

Sleep. Improved development. Relief from colic. All are important benefits from infant massage. Then there is the fact that it's just fun.

Price warned me that 11-month-old Olivia was a little old to be introduced to massage. But she lay still for 30 minutes as we massaged her with pure almond oil while flute music played in the background. She was smiling, sometimes thinking I was tickling her.

To be honest, though, it has been harder to get her to stay still that long during our busy day at home. Price tells me to keep trying even in very short sessions. I wish I had started this earlier, before Olivia could flip over or crawl away.

After all, new moms complain that all their babies seem to enjoy is eating and sleeping. Next time around I'll add massage to the list.

_ For a list on infant massage instructors in the area call the National Association of Infant Massage at 1-800-248-5432.