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How a simple tummy-rub can change babies' lives

Baby massage has been practiced in South Asia for centuries. Now scientists are discovering its life-saving potential.

On a cool October evening, Renu Saxena brought her newborn daughter home from hospital in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru. It struck her just how fragile her baby was, her tiny veins glowing through her translucent skin. She had been born early, at 36 weeks, and weighed only 2.4kg (5.3lbs). Saxena’s family urged her to immediately start an age-old Indian remedy for helping newborns thrive: daily baby massage. But her doctors were more cautious, and suggested she wait until the baby had put on more weight before starting massages.

Saxena struck a compromise, and decided to hold off for two weeks. During that time, her daughter gained hardly any weight, less than 100g (3.5oz) a week, and slept fitfully. It was only when Saxena hired a retired neonatal nurse, and learned the art of traditional baby massage from her, that things took a turn for the better. Her daughter not only began to sleep well, she also put on more weight.

Far from an isolated success, Saxena’s experience is backed by a growing body of evidence on the surprising benefits of South Asian baby massage, including for premature babies. Studies have shown that these oil massages, when done properly, can boost babies’ weight gain prevent bacterial infections, and cut infant mortality by up to 50%. Parents interested in the technique should however discuss it with their healthcare provider first, to ensure it is safe and suitable for their child.


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