Oils in baby massage – to use, or not to use?

One of the main benefits of infant massage is skin-to-skin bonding through nurturing touch between baby and caregiver. For this reason, it is usually recommended that we massage baby with no clothes on (or at least no clothes on the bit we are massaging), using small amounts of a cold-pressed, organic vegetable oil of your choice.

Using an oil is important because baby’s skin is extremely soft – and we would like to keep it that way. Babies’ skin is super soft because it is at least 20% thinner than an adult’s: it is made up of cells a lot smaller and collagen fibres a lot thinner than ours. This makes a baby’s skin more porous, less capable of retaining moisture and also less capable of self-moisturizing. All this put together makes baby’s skin much more sensitive than ours. And if it is not taken good care of, it becomes less resistant to infection, and more prone to irritation and dryness. Using a cold-pressed, organic vegetable oil while massaging our baby serves a double function: it keeps our little one’s skin moisturized while it smoothens the flow of strokes both preventing overstimulation and friction, and allowing for uninterrupted skin-to-skin bonding time.

Experts primarily recommend the use of cold-pressed, unscented, plant-based vegetable oils as these are: more nourishing for the skin, clogs the pores less and thus gets more easily absorbed by the skin, easy to digest if baby sucks on their oil-smeared fingers, have no added scent, thus they mask the parent’s and the baby’s unique odor much less – remember that the sense of smell is crucial in early childhood development: it has a strong connection with emotions and plays a key role in infant-parent bonding, non-irritant in general.

Sometimes we will hear that we can use any oil on baby that we would put on our salad. That is mostly true. However, as great as nut-based oils are as carrier oils when it comes to massaging adults, for little ones these can and often prove highly irritant and allergenic. It is usually advised against the use of nut-based oils in baby’s first year.

Essential oils are strongly recommended against, too, when it comes to infant massage. Great caution should be exercised when using essential oils around (let alone on) babies as they are still adjusting to life outside the womb: essential oils are simply too strong to use at this stage. Opinion widely differs as to when it is safe to introduce aroma therapy into our little one’s life: some sources suggest 3 months, others 6 months, and yet others 12 months of age. If we are intent on using essential oils for baby massage, I would strongly recommend first consulting with our health care provider on this as well as with a trained aromatherapist – better to err on the side of caution.

In case we have already been using a mineral-based oil to both our and baby’s satisfaction, all is good, no need to swap. A word of caution, though, on mineral oils. They contain petroluem-based chemicals, among others, they tend to be scented thus masking our and baby’s odor a lot more (so always check for unperfumed options), and they get absorbed less easily and make baby’s skin very slippery (if we opt for a mineral oil for our baby’s massage, be careful when handling baby during and after the session: perhaps try scheduling it just before bath time so that we can wash it all off nice and neat).

Which oil to opt for if baby has dry, sensitive skin?

Vegetable oils are the winners in this category as they contain high levels of polyunsaturated fats as well as a substance called linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid that helps protect the skin barrier and is thought to be gentler on sensitive skin.

Vegetable oils with high levels of linoleic acid are, for example:- pure sunflower seed oil,- grapeseed oil.
If our local health-food store does not have these oils available, and we are wondering which other oil to choose, we might resort to investigating the fine print on the label. Although labels on vegetable oils do not usually list linoleic acid content, they do list the proportions of polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats contained. As a rule of thumb: vegetable oils that are high in linoleic acid are also high in polyunsaturated fats. For dry, sensitive skin, choose a pure, unscented vegetable oil that is high in polyunsaturated fats.

Before using any new oil on baby, it is recommended that we do a patch test. Put a tiny amount of oil on baby’s exposed skin (preferably somewhere where they cannot reach it, in case irritation occurs), and monitor the area from 20 minutes up to 1 day . If we notice any sign of irritation, stop using any oils until we checked with our physician.

I hope this helps. 🙂

Happy massaging!

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