The group of new moms sat in a small circle as Nancy Walters of Forks Township, Pa., stroked the letters of "I Love U" across the abdomen of a 4-month-old doll. The moms gingerly followed suit on their own children while the babies squirmed and smiled in delight.
Infant massage, an age-old technique that promotes bonding and provides health benefits to babies, is enjoying a resurgence of interest.
Walters, who learned to teach infant massage earlier this year, says she wanted to pass the benefits on.
"I recommend it to any new parent," said Debra Dalrymple-Kleinfeldt, who attended the session with her then 4-week-old son, Benjamin. "You get to really know your baby through the power of touch and get over some of your fears of breaking him!"
Dalrymple-Kleinfeldt said she really enjoys the bonding time with her son.
"I find the time I share with Ben after his bath, giving him a massage, wonderful for both of us," she said. "He gets my undivided attention and seems to really enjoy it."
She said as an added benefit, Ben has been sleeping through the night since she took the class.
"I think the massage helps him relax for the evening," she said.
Walters, a yoga teacher, said she was fascinated when she saw a video on infant massage last year. Although her children are grown, she thought it was a wonderful technique to offer to other mothers.
Infant massage, a blend of Indian massage, reflexology and yoga, was popularized by Vimala McClure, a missionary who saw firsthand the benefits of the practice in an orphanage in India.
McClure founded the International Association of Infant Massage, through which Walters trained.
"I was very surprised how intensely beautiful this is," Walters said of the massage. "And I was amazed at how powerful it is."
Primarily, massage promotes bonding between the parent and child, but it also provides many physical benefits from relieving colic to helping with sleep problems.
"Touching is extraordinarily important to maturing the nervous system and digestion," Walters said. "Touch is the first sense developed in the womb. When a baby is born some of those neural pathways are not complete and this helps make those connections."
She said in addition to neurological benefits, massage also stimulates a baby's heart and lungs and can help work out mucus in the lungs; and develops muscle tone and flexion in limbs, hands and feet.
Walters said learning massage also helps make new mothers relax and become more confident in handling their children.
"It's beneficial when we have an opportunity to touch all parts of the body," she said.
She said anyone can massage an infant, including fathers or grandparents. To start, Walters recommends the parent prop the baby on a pillow. Remove clothes down to the diaper or remove all clothes if preferred. She suggests rubbing oil on your hands to warm them up before starting the massage. Use an edible oil such as olive or canola, she said, since baby oil isn't edible and could potentially clog a baby's airway.
She said she teaches parents to massage legs, belly, chest, arms, back and face.
"There are a lot of reasons to massage the belly. If you work the way the intestine lies, you're helping the process of digestion," she said.
Walters said the "I Love U" stroke follows the path of a baby's duodenum.
And she stresses infant massage is child-centered. "Every baby is different," she said. "This way you're discovering things about each other."
She said massage can be done on newborns and the techniques have even been used on premature babies. Massage is especially beneficial for adopted children, she adds.
And as children get older, parents can adapt the techniques to accommodate growing bodies.
"I recommend once a day or whenever you can," she said.