This week is Maternal Mental Health Week and I am happy to be supporting and raising awareness of this very important issue.
I believe infant massage can play a vital role in helping women to embrace motherhood on two levels;
- By bringing women together in safe and supportive groups where experiences can be shared.
- By physically supporting the process due to the production of “love hormones” from touch and skin to skin which can help post natal recovery and encourage bonding and the mothering “instinct”.
Babies learn from their parents so it’s so important that we support mothers so that they feel nurtured, valued and celebrated. Mothers who can be emotionally responsive and available for their babies can help to teach that the world is a kind, compassionate and loving place and help to support the emotional development of their child.
“A child’s first relationship, the one with his mother acts as a template that permanently moulds the individual’s capacity to enter into all later emotional relationships” (Schore, 2002).
The Power of Connection
Many women I have encountered over the years teaching infant massage have experienced post natal depression and anxiety. Some of the women appear outwardly confident and in their flow as mothers, but inside feel vulnerable, isolated and alone. The characteristics of someone suffering from post natal depression are so varied; that’s why I have always created space in my infant massage classes for people to share ideas, experiences and get to know each other so that if extra support is needed we can provide it as a group or I can sign post a new mother to more specialist help.
The process of sharing can feel like a huge burden is lifted from you. You are not alone. You are not the only one. Mothering is not “vanilla” flavoured. It’s okay to feel like you can’t cope or not enjoying what you are doing right now. Infant massage classes offer community without judgement. Friendship and support. Space to be heard and an outlet for expression.
Infant massage instructors promote the importance of parents’ tuning into their babies, to respond to their babies and to talk to their babies. It’s okay to tell your baby how you feel and still be there for him/her. Mothers are not super human, despite many images and accounts telling us we should be. Mothers are embracing a new identity and starting an intimate journey with another person they have only just met, may not understand or have a connection with. This can be a hard process and at times a very selfless one.
The Power of Touch and “Love” Hormones
Not only do classes offer support, infant massage itself has been shown to have some benefits for supporting maternal mental health. Touch produces the hormone oxytocin which is known as the mothering hormone or love hormone. It is produced in pregnancy, is in high amounts during birth causing the contractions of the womb and is produced through breastfeeding and skin to skin contact after birth. Oxytocin is an amazing hormone which helps us feel more connected to each other. It’s why hugging and cuddles make us feel good and why we intuitively try to reassure others with a gentle touch or hand holding. Skin to skin contact after birth is crucial to the mother/baby relationship as it allows oxytocin to be produced and lets nature support the journey into motherhood on the most basic level. The mother and baby are not designed to be physically separated after birth. Touch, massage and skin to skin help to attune each to the other.
Oxytocin is part of the hormonal team that cause the body to relax and re-balance the body after any stress and anxiety. It is very important in helping new mothers adjust to motherhood, prepare for caring for their babies and to enhance bonding. Touch is core to our experience as humans. It is a vital part of life. The best part, we all have the ability to give touch and receive touch in return. In essence love creates love through reaching out and connecting physically through touch.
On a physical level touch and massage helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system starting a cascade of relaxation responses that help to lower blood pressure, heart rate, support digestion and the immune system amongst other physiology benefits. It boosts circulation which helps the process of metabolism on a cellular level and supplies muscles, organs and bones with what they need to work efficiently.
Infant massage classes teach mothers how to communicate love to their babies through touch. When massage and touch occurs oxytocin is produced which chemically changes how we feel, make us feel more loving and more nurturing. Mothers and babies have the time to tune in to each other, tune out of expectations and connect at the most basic and physical level. Turning off the voices in your head and focusing on how touch and love feels.
Now For The Science
Research on the effects of maternal postnatal depression indicates that:
- The long-term effects of continued postnatal depression include compromised emotional (e.g. Stein et al 1991) and cognitive functioning (e.g. Tronick et al 1986)
- Depression in the postnatal period is associated with insecurity of attachment in early childhood (i.e. around 18 months postpartum) (e.g. Murray 1992; Stein et al 1991)
- Nearly half babies of depressed mothers show lower levels of left frontal brain activity (e.g. joy; interest; anger) (Dawson et al 1999) -Taken from RCM “Maternal Emotional Wellbeing and Infant Development”
There are a number of studies which show that an infant massage program can help to improve the interaction and responses between parents with post natal depression and their babies (Underdown, Barlow, & Stewart-Brown: 2010). There is also some evidence from studies carried out that it may help to alleviate some of the feelings and symptoms around post natal depression although further investigation is needed (Fujita, Endoh, Saimon & Yamaguchi: 2006; Onozawa, Glover, Adams, Modi & Kumar: 2001).
So what conclusions can we draw from this and what love lessons can we take away.
- Oxytocin can help to support a women’s mothering and nurturing instinct which can make adjustment to motherhood easier. A women’s oxytocin levels can be boosted through self care and especially massage and nurturing touch. Infant massage can help a mother’s body produce oxytocin.
- Oxytocin after birth can help to reduce the levels of stress based hormones produced during birth. It supports a baby’s parasympathetic nervous system. It may aid mother and baby recovery after birth and boost wellbeing.
- Mothers & babies should be kept together and have as much skin to skin contact as possible after birth.
- For non breastfeeding mothers, skin to skin, touch and massage is a great way to boost oxytocin.
- Using touch after birth supports a women’s postnatal recovery. In many cultures women receive massage and are nurtured by other female family members. This helps boost oxytocin which helps to contract the uterus after birth to support breastfeeding, sleep, improved digestion and enhances relaxation. Community and individual support is vital to help new mothers.
What We Are Doing
Maternal Mental Health matters because studies have shown that touch and bonding helps babies physical and emotional development. Mother’s need to be emotionally available to their babies. Babies grow with love but mothers need to feel loved and nurtured in order to give love. More needs to be done to support women after birth as they journey into motherhood which is why I place so much emphasis on nurturing parents and babies in all my training courses. Parents are their baby’s first teachers and how they learn about emotions, feelings and social interaction. Love lessons through nurturing touch are the best ones to share with a baby; to help shape how their babies brain develops and how they perceive the world. This window of opportunity to help support a baby’s emotional development is vital to help create a secure child who is confident to explore the world, interacting with others with the knowledge he/she is loved.
It sounds simple, but sometimes it can be difficult to share love if you are not feeling it for yourself or have not experienced it. If this is the case, don’t be concerned. Creating and sharing love and bonding can start and happen at any time. Not everyone falls in love at first sight. Love grows and blossoms over time and with attention. The good news is that there are things that we can do to help create love.
I have created free resources for mothers to take-away and use and there are a growing number of Love Creates Love Groups which are facilitated by Blossom & Berry trained teachers and take place across the country/world which help to provide free TLC, nurturing, mini massage and a space to explore feelings. You can find our more about our free resources and groups here http://www.blossomandberry.com/benefits/love-creates-love-campaign/. Blossom & Berry wants to reach out and support more new mothers across the world.
“You can only love your child as much as you love yourself”-Brene Brown