Hundreds of local parents are getting their infants massages — just for the health of it.
Premature infants who receive massage generally recover faster from health problems, according to "Massage Today" magazine. This is because infant massage can reduce pain in premature babies, decrease stress levels and help them heal faster. It can also help underweight infants gain weight faster by speeding up their gut mobility and making them hungrier.
Research also shows that babies who receive massages sleep better, have a stronger immune system, have fewer digestive problems and are less likely to get sick.
So, once a month, a quiet, after-hours suite of rooms at St. Vincent Healthcare serves as a massage parlor for as many as eight infants who come to get their tummies rubbed, their legs stretched and their muscles toned. It's probably the only one-hour massage session in town where feeding, diapering and crying are welcome.
At least 350 people have taken the infant massage class under the tutelage of Melissa Wells, a certified instructor who has been teaching the class for four years. She instructs parents, siblings, grandparents, health care professionals and child care providers on how to massage babies.
A one-hour massage can calm and soothe babies suffering from such common ailments as gas, colic, teething and cold congestion.
Dr. Frederick Leboyer, a French obstetrician best known for his 1975 book, "Birth Without Violence," which popularized the practice of immersing newly born infants in a small tub of warm water, said "Being touched and caressed, being massaged, is food for the infant, food as necessary as minerals, vitamins and proteins."
Some of the benefits include strengthening and balancing the respiratory, circulatory and digestive systems; stimulating muscle tone and growth; providing relief for discomfort of constipation; releasing stress in both the infant and parent; strengthening parent-child bonding; and enhancing first communication skills.
Research shows that massage has been proven to improve sleeping patterns.
"It is an essential tool for parents and caregivers to learn so they may soothe and help their children through growing stages," Wells said.
A study by the Touch Research Institute found that massage therapy stimulated growth in premature babies. The technique also is endorsed by the International Association of Infant Massage.
Research further shows that parents of preemies gain confidence and greater security in their handling skills through healing, loving touch.
"The single most important benefit parents and babies gain from infant massage is the connection it builds," Wells said. "It increases a baby's sense of being loved and helps the baby learn to trust its parents."
Wells, 26, is the mother of two boys and has used the massage technique on both. It helped navigate the difficult growing stages, she said.
Sommer Eberly of Billings and Jackson, 10 months, enrolled in the most recent, one-hour session for a second time. Jackson was born three months premature, weighing 1 pound, 13 ounces. He suffers from stiffness, commonly referred to as "preemie tone." The massage helps develop his muscle tone.
"It makes him sleepy," Eberly said. "He really likes it. And, it's that bonding, that skin-to-skin contact that I like."
Teri and Paul Swenson of Billings enrolled in the class to help their 9-month-old twins, Haylie and Sophie. They were born 11 weeks premature.
"We think it will help loosen them up and help with their development, Teri said.
The program is viewed as a critical component of St. Vincent's class offerings for mothers and newborns.
"Touch is an important part of newborn development," said Sara Bailey, nurse manager of the St. Vincent Healthcare Labor and Delivery and Mother Newborn Care Units.
"Massage therapy has proven to help improve physical development, and even more, emotional development in infants."