Are Baby Massages Good for Reflux? Massage Techniques to Help Soothe Your Baby

Reflux is considered one of the colic symptoms, which is also known as Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The reason is that trapped air in your baby’s stomach causes pressure and pushes milk and stomach acids back up the esophagus. This is why reflux is often associated with gas or air pockets which is true to a point. It affects about 50% of babies and is present at birth.

The main reason for reflux is an underdeveloped muscle (esophagus sphincter or LES) that links the stomach’s esophagus. As the muscle develops and strengthens, the problem will dissipate on its own. In essence, the LES is a one-way valve that opens, allowing food to enter the stomach and then closes immediately. This prevents food from using this entry point to exit the stomach.

Reflux is not a serious concern as long as your baby is developing normally, and their weight gain is consistently improving.

Causes of acid reflux

There are some unavoidable reasons for babies developing reflux. Lying flat their back for most of the day will prevent gravity from keeping their food down.

The fact that babies have a purely liquid diet contributes to easy flow and will promote reflux. And premature babies will more than likely suffer from reflux because their normal development was interrupted.

However, reflux in babies can be caused by more serious conditions, such as:

  • GERD: This is when normal reflux contains enough acid to damage the lining of the esophagus.
  • Pyloric stenosis: A condition caused by a narrowed valve between the stomach and small intestine that will restrict food movement in that direction.
  • Food intolerance: This can normally be attributed to protein in cow’s milk. Mothers should cut dairy out of their diet to see if it alleviates the problem.

There are other reasons for exaggerated or advanced reflux, and it is best to consult your pediatrician for a thorough investigation.

Can massaging your baby help?

Dad massaging his baby boy who is on his tummy.

This may seem like a silly question, especially if you are not familiar with a massage’s benefits, but it’s a perfectly valid question.

Now that we know the main causes of reflux, it may seem silly to think that a massage will make any difference. Besides, this supports the “silly question” assumption, right? Let’s take a closer look at what massages actually achieve before branding it as a myth.

When babies are in distress, a mother’s natural reaction is to cuddle their little one. A mom will talk gently to her baby and stroke their head while keeping them secure in an embrace. No matter what the circumstances are, soothing really helps. The skin-to-skin time also helps babies feel more secure, as does being in a different position that is more elevated.

Gently massaging your baby’s body relieves tension and stress caused by reflux. Although you are unable to directly massage the problem valves, massaging does stimulate the nervous system.

This includes the Vagus nerve, which controls aspects of the digestive system. Regular massages help to improve muscle tone and coordination, which will help to alleviate reflux issues.

Infants are not able to move on their own, which helps to move ingested milk through the digestive system and expel gasses. For this reason, burping during and after feeds is important. Inevitably, burping will not get rid of all the ingested air, and the remaining trapped air may cause discomfort.

Proper feeding techniques and using the correct size nipple on bottles is equally important to limit the amount of air your baby swallows. To add value to proper feeding techniques and burping, body massages are especially effective in combating stubborn gassy problems.

Different baby massage techniques

The aim of stomach massages is to get trapped air and other matter to move through the intestines towards the bowels.

Before you actually try giving your baby a massage, it’s best to discuss the matter with your pediatrician, explaining your intentions. Your doctor will be able to give you the best advice suited to your baby’s current physical condition.

Massages are not recommended directly after feeding. You may want to include a daily massage in your wind-down time just after a warm bath and before the final bedtime feed. It’s best only to massage your baby about 45 minutes after a feed, so their last meal has time to settle.

Stomach massages generally begin at the lower right side of your baby’s belly. Moving in a circular motion, you will end at the lower left side where the colon begins.

Here are popular massage techniques:

Hands of the Clock:

Dad doing a "hands of the clock" baby massage to help with acid reflux.

Picture a clock on your baby’s tummy and begin between 7 and 8 O’clock, moving in the same direction as the hands of the clock (clockwise). You will gently press down, one hand behind the other, and move around to between 3 and 4 O’clock. Skip the bottom of your baby’s belly and begin again from the 7/8 O’clock position.

Paddling:

Begin at the top of your baby’s tummy and place the pinkie side of your hands horizontally across your baby’s belly. Apply gentle pressure and move down to the bottom of the belly. Repeat the motion but do not apply too much pressure.

I Love You:

Begin on the right-hand side of your baby’s belly button and trace the letter I. Next, trace the letter L starting at the top left-hand side, move across, then down the right side. Finally, invert the U and begin at the bottom left, moving up and around the top and down to the bottom right of your baby’s tummy.

While going through the motions, say the words aloud and look into your baby’s eyes. This is a great way to connect with your little one and let them feel your love for them.

Moonwalking:

Begin just above your baby’s belly button on the left side; walk and slide your index and middle finger across to the right side of your baby’s belly in an arch.

Add baby yoga to the mix

An infant doing tummy time on a yoga mat to help with reflux.

Baby yoga is great for both mom and baby as it works as a bonding exercise and offers the baby some relief from reflux. It also helps to strengthen and tone your little one’s muscles.

In short, baby yoga is a mix of different tummy time techniques. There are also other activities to help loosen up trapped wind and improve bowel movements.

Tummy time is an important development exercise for your baby. It helps to strengthen neck muscles essential for baby to begin controlling their head movements. Other muscles are also developed in the process. Here are a few baby yoga exercises that help with reflux:

Knee to chest movements:

This a fun exercise to do after each diaper change. While your baby is lying on their back, hold your baby’s legs just below the knees and a little wider than the hips. Move your baby’s legs up to their torso, touching the sides of their rib cage and back to the start position. Your baby may resist, but with your tender voice, your baby will relax.

It’s a non-evasive exercise and falls in with your baby’s flexibility. You could change the exercise to resemble riding a bicycle, one leg then the other. A few reportions should be fine but make sure to communicate with your baby during the exercise.

Butterfly Tummy Time:

Get your baby in a comfortable face down position across your lap with you sitting on the ground. If your baby is on the floor, use a small rolled-up towel to support the top of their torso, just below the arms. Gently stroke your baby’s back from top to bottom on the sides of the spine. Then hold your baby’s legs at the calf, one in each hand and bend their knees.

Move their feet in the pattern of butterfly wings. The movement should bring their feet close to their bottom but do not force the movement. Stop at your baby’s limit and hold for a second or two, then repeat for two or three times. Don’t overdo any exercise.

Tiger in the Tree Hold:

Baby’s enjoy this position and may fall asleep while cradled in your arm. Hold your baby on your forearm tummy down with their head in the crook of your arm facing outward. Your hand will grip the outer leg for safety and comfort.

You can walk with your baby in this position and do small dips but be sure you are relaxed. Your baby will pick up if you are stressed and will respond accordingly. The pressure on your baby’s tummy and the added movements will help release winds and minimize reflux. Your body warmth also helps to soothe your baby.

Conclusion

Baby massages are a great way to help your baby deal with issues that cause discomfort, but they also help in your baby’s development. It’s a win-win situation for mom’s peace of mind and baby’s comfort.

Be sure to speak with your pediatrician about baby massages and baby yoga exercises as therapy to help with reflux. Rather use advice specific to your baby’s condition than use generalized advice off the internet. It’s always best to clarify issues with medical professionals involved in your baby’s wellbeing. 

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