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Tiny touches of love
Infant massage seen as an important part of parenting

by Nicole Fox, Express-News Medical Writer

Baby Alexis squirms on the quilted mat as her 15 year-old mother leans over her, gently cupping her tiny leg in her canola oil-covered palm.

Crystal Coronado keeps her hand curled in a "C" as she rhythmically runs it from Alexis' hip to her ankle, over and over. The 10-week-old child squeal and coos with delight over the "Indian milking" massage motion, and Coronado flashes a quick smile that reveals her silver braces.

"Look, she likes it," she giggles, nudging Alexis' 18-year-old father, Joey Delgado, who sits cross-legged next to them on the mat.

The couple is part of a group of teen parents (so far, eight moms and two dads) who meet once a week to learn the artof infant massage. And as instructor José De León, a local massage therapist certified in infant massage, explains at the start of the class, this is not simply about rubbing and kneading.

"This is about talking and responding to your baby, not just about massage," he tells the young parents as they settle their diapered babies atop plush pillows placed in a large circle.

Dé León who has his own private therapeutic massage practice in Olmos Park, volunteers his time with the teen parenting program known as Project Mothers and Schools. The program, an outreach of the Children's Shelter, helps support teen parents attending several high schools in the San Antonio School District.

It was after reading a recent newspaper article about the city's emergency infant shelter that Dé León decided to find a way to lend his services.

He called the Children's Shelter, and discussions led to the idea of him teaching teen parents about the benefits of appropriate touch and massaging their babies.

Annette Rodriquez, director of adolescent services at the shelter, acknowledged there was some initial skepticism over Dé León's offer.

"At first, we were wondering a bit about it, but then we saw how the research backed up that massage helps the infant-parent bond," she said.

Long a practice of Mother Earth and yuppie parenting sets, infant massage is moving more into the mainstream. Several local hospitals and massage therapists offer infant massage classes to parents.

In a 1999 article in Contemporary Pediatrics magazine, Tiffany Field, one of the nation's top "touch researchers," studied 40 full-term infants who were massaged 15 minutes per day over minutes per day over a six-week period. The babies cried less, scored higher on sociability measures and gained more weight than infants who were merely rocked over the same time period.

Dé León explains that parental touch is often the sense that infants use first to learn about the world. If that communication is appropriate, affectionate and responsive, babies can thrive, knowing they are secure and loved, he says.

Some of the teen parents have firsthand experience with inappropriate or abusive touch, so teaching them the right way to respond with their children is extremely important, Rodriquez said. Infant massage is a good way to encourage the teens to break such cycles, while strengthening the bonds with their children, she said.

I think there is a lot of value in showing them how to be gentle and how to respond to their babies' cues," Rodriquez said. "That's really what these girls need right now. Some are in that egocentric phase, and hopefully this will help really open them up to paying close attention to their children.

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