Colic is no fun for either baby or their parents. The constant cries, the uncomfortable, squirming and grunting baby and the overwhelming feelings that parents often feel make this part of a child’s infancy one that you eagerly wish is over rather than cherishing every moment. However, the magic of baby massage could help many families through colic and reflux and manage many of the distressing symptoms that babies experience.
The symptoms of colic
Many babies will display some of these symptoms of colic;
- Excessive crying
- Clenched fists
- Bloated/distorted abdomen
- Arching back
- Pulling legs up
What causes colic?
Colic is the excessive crying in an otherwise healthy baby. It usually strikes before 6 weeks and intensifies between 6 and 8 weeks, to then subside around 3 or 4 months old. However, this is a generalisation and colic has various triggers including;
- Immature digestion
- Milk allergies
- Lactose intolerance
- Gut dysbiosis
The above are a few of the causes of infant colic and although baby massage cannot cure milk allergies, gut dysbiosis and lactose intolerance, it can help to soothe a colicky baby and help to manage the symptoms often associated with colic.
Baby Massage to manage colic symptoms
Baby massage can help expel the trapped wind and gas and the air bubbles that form in the gut due to an immature digestive system. The pressure placed on the tummy and the strokes used helps to displace the air bubbles, making it easier for them to pass.
Secondly, massage releases natural pain-killing hormones so a baby who is struggling with gut discomfort will benefit from this hormone release and it will help manage the discomfort.
Another hormone that is released during massage or skin to skin contact, is oxytocin. This results in relaxation and the reduction of the stress hormone, cortisol. When a baby is relaxed, he enters into a rest and digest state – the parasympathetic nervous system. The hormone melatonin is also released during a massage and this hormone has been found to relax the digestive tract, soothing gut discomfort.
Massage to mature the gut
Massage can also help to mature the gut and make it work more efficiently, as well as managing the symptoms. It regulates gastric motility (movement of the food from the mouth to the stomach and out of the body) and food digestion. This is due to the pressure of the massage which stimulates the vagal nerve. Research has found that the higher vagal tone translates to elevated availability of ingested nutrients and better digestion. This is something which an immature digestive system will really benefit from, helping it mature and do its job more effectively.
The strokes also help a process called myelination which is responsible for the brain to body communication. This results in the brain being able to communicate to the digestive system more quickly and effectively. Making it less sluggish and less likely that trapped gas will occur.
Massage to help reflux
Reflux is often thought of as a separate issue to colic, however it often the reason for the colic. Reflux is the regurgitation of stomach contents returning up the oesophagus and it can cause babies to feel uncomfortable and become distressed.
Although baby massage cannot cure reflux, it can have many benefits such as releasing the natural pain-killing hormones and increasing melatonin so that parents can manage their baby’s discomfort.
Another benefit of massage is that it speeds up nerve maturation. The enteric nervous system (ENS), which begins in the uppers oesophagus and ends in the anal sphincter, is responsible for the GI tract. The vagal pathways (part of the ENS) are the ones that are essential for reflex relaxation of the lower oesophageal sphincter (LES). It is often the relaxation of the LES which causes the reflux symptoms. Therefore, the stimulation of the vagal nerve which occurs during a massage will have a positive impact on a reflux baby.
Although colic and reflux can be an incredibly challenging time for babies and their parents, baby massage can be an empowering tool that literally puts magic into the parents’ hands.
 Field T, Diego M, Hernandez-Reif M. Preterm infant massage therapy research: a review. Infant Behav Dev. 2010;33(2):115-124. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2009.12.004
 Chang HY, Mashimo H, and Goyal RK. Musings on the wanderer: What’s new in our understanding of the vago-vagal reflex? IV. Current concepts of vagal efferent projections to the gut. Am J Phys Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology. 2003;284:G357-G366. Cited in: Field T, Diego M, and Hernandez-Reif M. Preterm infant massage therapy research: A review. Infant Behavior & Development. 2010;33:115-124.
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