Baby spas are becoming more popular but are massages safe for newborns?

Baby Spa in Abu Dhabi offers massage and hydrotherapy for infants; we analyse the benefits and precautions parents can take

“Have you been massaging her? Mix coconut oil with castor oil and rub it on her scalp,” my mother-in-law tells me over the phone from Karachi. “And rub olive oil on her tummy – it will help with constipation.” I gave birth to my daughter six months ago and, ever since, I’m constantly reminded to massage the baby, whether it’s to stimulate hair growth on her head, get rid of her body hair, encourage bowel movements or prep her for a long stretch of sleep.

To be honest, I’ve only done it a handful of times. As an independent millennial, I don’t pay quite as much heed to the wise advice of my elders. But the topic of baby massages is becoming harder to ignore; it’s creeping up in my Facebook groups, the magazines I read and the social circles I’m part of.

Massage therapy for newborns is a norm in traditional Indian and Pakistani families – with special maalish-wallis, literally massage ladies, making daily house visits – and now the movement is gaining worldwide traction. It’s even making headway in the Middle East, culminating with the launch of a spa for newborns and infants in Abu Dhabi.

A spa for babies comes to Abu Dhabi

Baby Spa in Yas Mall aims to provide hair, nail and massage services along with hydrotherapy for babies between two and 18 months. Shaima Al Mehyas was inspired to launch Baby Spa after a trip to Singapore, where she visited a children's spa with her then two-month-old son. "Although you can find these in other countries, the idea was still new to the Middle East," says the entrepreneur who received aid from the Khalifa Fund – an Abu Dhabi initiative that helps young visionaries set up and fund their businesses.

A spa just for babies might sound a tad excessive, but parents who may previously have found the notion of infant massage unsafe, unnecessary and even ludicrous, are embracing the idea, which is now largely researched and doctor-approved. News stories that mention baby massages warn not of potential risks, but rather have as their headlines "How to massage your baby at home"; "Why a massage is necessary for your infant"; "Massage your baby to sleep"; and "Baby oil market poised to incur steadfast growth during 2019-2025".

In forming her business plan for Baby Spa, Al Mehyas was particularly impressed with ­hydrotherapy – where babies are put in a tub with a flotation ring fastened around their neck for about 20 minutes. From Baby Float Spa in Toronto to Baby Spa Luxe in Hong Kong, outlets offering hydrotherapy for infants are becoming increasingly popular the world over – and Baby Spa is the first of its kind in the UAE.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - June 30, 2019: Arthur Cook who is 6 months old has hydrotherapy treatment and baby massage from Jacquelyn Pe–a at Baby Spa in Abu Dhabi. Sunday the 30th of June 2019. Yes Mall, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“Hydrotherapy has various benefits for babies, including the strengthening of muscular and skeletal activity, supporting of mental and physical activity, improving sleeping patterns – the mothers’ favourite, of course – and improving digestion and blood circulation,” explains Al Mehyas. “Especially in Asian cultures, hydrotherapy and massages are an essential tradition for all newborns. We were worried that [parents from] certain cultures might not accept the concept, but we get clients from different countries, both residents and visitors.”

Infant massages can be helpful but unnerving to watch

Baby spas may be a new trending model but, as Al Mehyas points out, mothers have long been recruiting maalish-wallis in South Asian cultures. Dubai resident Khushi Malani did this for all three of her children. "I hired an Indian lady to give the kids a massage daily until they were six months old," she says. "I believe it helps their bones get ­stronger and also soothes them, which helps them sleep better. I feel it helped their posture and flexibility, and since it's a deep tissue oil massage, it hydrates the skin and helps avoid nappy rash."

I believe it helps their bones get ­stronger and also soothes them, which helps them sleep better. I feel it helped their posture and flexibility, and since it's a deep tissue oil massage, it hydrates the skin and helps avoid nappy rash.

Malani hired the same maalish lady as some of her closest friends and was comfortable enough not to ask for official certification. “Of course, my husband and I watched her very carefully for the first few days,” she says. But while a word-of-mouth recommendation may have worked well for her, some mothers are hesitant to place their trust in strangers, no matter how many years of experience they come with. Massages for newborns are often quite vigorous, making them unnerving to witness – especially if it’s not part of your culture and with the baby typically bawling throughout.

That's exactly what Canadian mother Anna Durrani, who lives in Dubai, went through with her firstborn. "It made me wonder if this is beneficial or harmful in the long run," she says. "What concerns me is that most of the time you go through someone's cousin's friend et cetera, whose newborn had a good experience, and based on that you're hiring these women to come into your home and basically manhandle your baby."

Durrani explains that after watching her own son’s body get pulled and squeezed, post-partum paranoia kicked in, causing her to question whether the woman ever had any professional training or received any certification in massage therapy. However, having read about the health benefits of infant massages, Durrani decided to practise doing them herself for her next child. “It was relaxing and helped us connect, so why would I need a stranger to do it?”

Mums (and dads) as massage therapists

Performing massage therapy on your own child can be beneficial for both parties, agrees Louise Atkinson, who, after having her second child in 2016, founded Dou La La in Dubai, which offers support to new and expecting mothers, as well as baby-massage courses. Atkinson trained at the ­International Association of ­Infant Massage (IAIM), founded by Vimala McClure, the woman credited with bringing the concept of infant massages to the West, after she was exposed to the practice while working in an orphanage in India in the 1980s.

Louise Atkinson, founder of Dou La La in Dubai, teaches parents the right techniques to perform an infant massage themselves

Rather than performing massages on others’ children herself, Atkinson teaches parents the right techniques so they can do it themselves. “I work on the basis that the baby is your teacher, and the instructor is there to support and facilitate,” she says. Using a weighted doll, Atkinson demonstrates the recommended stretches and strokes within group-class environments. In addition to citing relief from gas, constipation and teething, and stimulation of the baby’s digestive, lymphatic, respiratory, circulatory and hormonal systems, Atkinson emphasises the emotional benefits that can come from a one-on-one massage. “It’s a wonderful way of feeling calm and close to your baby, and benefits include increased feelings of love, respect, attachment, bonding and communication through touch,” she explains.

A team of researchers at Warwick University, meanwhile, found that infant massage in babies under six months old may result in lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of melatonin, which is associated with sleep. This backs up the theory that babies who receive regular massages cry less and sleep more. A 2011 study in the Journal of Perinatal Education also found that massaging their babies can be good for men, and Atkinson holds classes on Saturdays for fathers. "They benefit significantly from the early one-on-one involvement that baby massage encourages," she says.

Massage techniques for babies

In 2018, a video of a baby massage therapist from Kazakhstan went viral, showing her swinging a young baby from its neck, prompting backlash on social media from users who were alarmed by the vigorous techniques. The type of baby massage promoted by ­practitioners such as Atkinson is a gentler, more soothing sort that favours enjoyable ­relaxation over intense aerobics. Babies are delicate, and the doula strongly recommends that caregivers attend courses with certified massage instructors to make sure they are handling their babies in the safest way possible. 

Although there may still be sceptics, the IAIM programme, claims Atkinson, is safe and suitable for newborns. "The strokes can even be adapted in circumstances such as when a baby is in an incubator or newborn intensive care unit," says Atkinson. "Positive touch is also linked to increased weight gain in babies born preterm."

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - June 30, 2019: Arthur Cook who is 6 months old has hydrotherapy treatment and baby massage from Jacquelyn Pe–a at Baby Spa in Abu Dhabi. Sunday the 30th of June 2019. Yes Mall, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

According to one research paper undertaken at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, the massage is believed to "clean, beautify, strengthen, limber up and fatten the baby as well as to instil in it positive mental-emotional qualities".

It might explain why only five per cent of mothers polled on the Real Mums of Dubai Facebook group still believe that massages are unnecessary and unhelpful for newborns. I can already hear the words “I told you so” emanating from my mother-in-law’s mouth when she reads this – and it seems that she’ll be absolutely right.  

Dou La La's tips for a successful baby massage

  • Always "obtain" permission before you begin. Show the baby your hands, maintain eye contact and ask: 'Would you like a massage?' Their behavioural cues will provide the response you're looking for.
  • When massaging the tummy, work in a clockwise direction – this mirrors the positioning of the intestine within the digestive system.
  • When massaging the back, ensure you work on either side of the spine rather than directly upon it, which can cause discomfort.
  • Find an appropriate time to massage your baby – they should be in a quiet but alert behavioural state, and have no immediate physical or emotional needs, such as be due a feed or require changing.