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Infant Massage – It’s not rocket science, but it is brain development

High-quality interactions and relationships between babies and parents are crucial for life-long mental and social wellbeing. Maternal stress introduces risks that can impede these interactions, affecting infant mental health development.

Relationships Australia South Australia (RASA) identified a practical program run by Baby in Mind called First Touch ™ that supports parents to address these issues.

The First Touch Program™ is a universal model – meaning that it can be accessed by families with a wide range of needs. It is not a therapeutic program, but a strengths-focused model, grounded in Attachment Theory and Community Development. It utilises principles of Relationship-Based Practice as well as Participatory Education and is a low-cost, evidence-informed program that aims to protect and restore these early interactions in the face of significant stress. It fosters the development of healthy parent-baby interactions by assisting parents to respond sensitively and appropriately to their babies through a range of modes including touch, massage, voice, facial expression, eye contact, and movement. Parents’ increased awareness of, and sensitivity to, their baby’s cues is then used as a basis for regulating, comforting, stimulating and soothing their baby. Whilst not necessarily concerned with preventing trauma, First Touch™ potentially prevents the consequences of early trauma on development.

After a successful pilot program in 2012/13, RASA took a proactive approach in funding a Certified Infant Massage Instructor to train others and coordinate programs across the agency.  As a result, almost all of RASA’s children’s, family and parenting programs have a trained Infant Massage Instructor available to parents as required. This includes Together4Kids; Indigenous Children and Schooling Program North and APY Lands; our Communities for Children programs in Enfield, Playford and Onkaparinga; and it is being rolled out in the new Children and Parenting Support service in the West.

Committed to providing services to the most vulnerable families, the Infant Massage program can be adjusted to meet the needs of the individual parents and babies, directly supporting parents to promote and restore their baby’s early relationships before problems become entrenched.

According to Deborah Lockwood, Manager of Child and Youth Services (RASA), the parenting behaviours supported by the First Touch™ program are those believed to be crucial to the optimal functioning, development and regulation of an infant’s Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis. This HPA axis plays a critical role in brain development during the first year of life and is associated with long-term mental health, social behaviour, and also the expression of certain genes associated with mental illness and addition.

From the evaluation of the First Touch™ Infant Massage program, 81% of participants reported substantial improvements in both their understanding of the importance of being in tune with their baby’s needs, and in their ability to perform the massage strokes that their baby enjoys.

These outcomes and achievements were acknowledged in September 2015 when RASA’s Infant Massage Program was awarded the South Australian NAPCAN Play Your Part Award.

If you would like more information about the Infant Massage program please email Kerryn, Coordinator Infant Massage at k.roberts@rasa.org.au or call (08) 8245 8100.

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