One of the most incredible healing and bonding techniques for infants that is practiced in many cultures all over the world is a structured, healing touch of the skin, also called nurturing touch or simply, massage.
I grew up with a strong interest in maternal and perinatal medicine and mental health, so I studied both conventional and indigenous medicine, both midwifery and clinical epidemiology, and I was amazed to see how intertwined both natural and allopathic healing was when it came to touch. Touch was a tool so widely accepted that it helped to bridge cultures and connect opposing schools of thought.
Infant massage is a tradition dating as far back as 3000 BC. It has been documented in China from about 2700 BC and in 1500 BC, it was practiced in India. Dr. Aulus Cornelius Celsus, a Roman physician/scientist who lived from 25 BC – 50 AD, wrote an General Encyclopedia of Medicine and talked about massage as a preventive treatment for headaches, fever, and paralysis. Even the “father of medicine,” Hippocrates, spoke highly of massage.
Native Hawaiian health beliefs and cultural practices utilized massage as medicine, a strategy passed down from generation to generation. Mayan and Polynesian cultures used massage for both mother and baby during the perinatal period to help with physical and mental health as well as spiritual connection and harmony with each other and the universe. It was literally a connection to the earth and the ocean, to the spirit and the sky. This incredible practice enchanted and captivated me as a healer, a doctor, a scientist, and a mother.
I also was fascinated by the health benefits. Not only did Native Hawai’ians use this practice as medicine to treat illnesses, they were able to reposition babies in the womb, help a stalled labor and reduce the symptoms of mental health issues such as depression. It is a form of physiotherapy, reflexology, psychology, meditation, relaxation and prayer all in harmony.
Lomi lomi is a profound ritual of massage, energy and spirit, with long flowing seamless strokes on the body. Lomi has become popular in Hawai’i but has been observed in many Polynesian islands, including as Tahiti, Samoa, Tokelau, and French Polynesia. It is a sacred ceremonial
technique often with mele- chanting, pule-prayer, and hula dancing movement as if flowing with the ocean waves.
For a pregnant woman, it is called Lomi Hapai and connects mother and baby with flowing energy- mana. Lomi keiki also uses these movements and techniques, but on an infant. Keiki means baby, child or offspring. A midwife is actually called a Pale Keiki in Hawai’ian culture, and often acts as both an OB and a neonatologist, as well as a therapist and spiritual healer.
Connecting with spirit and caregiver, with eye-to-eye, touch, voice, smell, movement, and thermal regulation, Lomi Keiki gives babies immediate comfort and rich sensory input. I absolutely adore lomi keiki because it is an evidence based healing practice for newborns that encourages cognitive and tactile stimulation and neurological development, helps digestion, improves temperature regulation and reduces cortisol, among many other benefits while still connecting the body, mind and spirit- connecting with akua, the gods and ancestors who help guide your way, and strengthening the mother-baby dyad and the healthy bonding between them.
The tradition of infant massage still keeps its ceremonial roots in many cultures, especially Hawaiian and Mayan, where both pregnancy and postpartum periods are times of great honor and respect for the new mother and her infant. Even today a pale keiki or midwife in many polynesian areas will encourage a new mother to massage her baby with kukui, coconut or macadamia oils using the gentle flowing moves of the ocean with her while arm across baby belly (soul) area, which is amazing for gastrointestinal issues such as colic, gas, or stomach discomfort.
Mayan tends to focus more on fertility and general abdominal therapy, but both of these traditions skillfully interweave medicine and spirituality. Learning about these cultures and the incredible medicine intertwined in this spiritual dance, sparked my interest to pursue this sacred wisdom further, as I have for over a decade now, with strength, love, attachment and mana.
Article written by:
Dr. Jill Diana Chasse, PhD, DrPH, IMD, MSpsy, CCTS-P, CLC
Doctor of Public Health - Epidemiology & Psychology
Certified Clinical Trauma Specialist, Certified HeartMath Practitioner, Certified Lactation Counselor (CBI)
* Maternal-Newborn Health Specialist at Flor da Vida
* Public Health Professor at William Paterson University
* Instructor & Content Developer at Empowering Midwifery Education
AADP Board Certified and Registered - NPI#1972104784
● Clarke, C. L., Gibb, C., Hart, J., & Davidson, A. (2002). Infant massage: Developing an evidence base for health visiting practice. Clinical Effectiveness in Nursing, 6, 121-128. doi:10.1016/S1361-9004(02)00089-4
● Diego, M. A., Field, T. & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2008). Temperature increases in preterm infants during massage therapy. Infant Behavior and Development, 31, 149-52
● Kleinman A. Patients and Healers in the Context of Culture: An Exploration of the Borderland Between Anthropology, Medicine, and Psychiatry. Berkley: University of California; 1980.
● McClure, Vimala Schneider, 1952-. Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1989.