Mums of the world: The traditional Indian baby bath and massage

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In Indian homes, a baby’s arrival is met with very unique, traditional rituals. These rituals have been practised and passed down for hundreds of generations. One of these long-held traditions is the much treasured Indian baby bath and massage.

While many cultures also perform baby massage (the Koreans believe regularly massaging the legs will make a baby taller, Russians massage their infants until they are a year old to strengthen and develop muscles), Indian tradition also practices the great bath for babies. Typically performed by a maalishwali (masseuse) or the baby’s grandmother, it is a traditional bath on the legs. One such massage was even captured in a 1906 clip from the British Film Institute.

Indians believe the detailed Ayurvedic rituals of both bath and massage help babies build muscle tone and improve their health.

Makchic speaks to an Indian postnatal service provider to get an insight into the customs and rituals modern-day parents want to preserve.

Preserving traditions

Kalaivani (in blue) has serviced over 100 babies with her professional postnatal service

Thirty-nine-year-old Kalaivani Rajeswaran runs a confinement centre called Precious 30 Days with her husband Prosper Raj. They provide postnatal services and help for mothers who want to follow Indian traditional rituals for their newborns.

Kalaivani said one of the most traditional aspects of taking care of a newborn baby is the traditional oil massage and bath. During this ritual, a baby is massaged with coconut oil, sesame oil or a mix of other oils from head to toe.

Kalaivani massaging the baby with oils

Kalaivani begins by using a gentle herbal oil, made from virgin coconut oil infused with holy basil, Indian oregano and aloe vera for the baby massage.

“A traditional massage starts from the body and ends at the legs. I use gentle downward strokes for the arms and legs, and circular movements for the chest and stomach areas. This promotes good blood circulation.

“The massage uses soft kneading methods and this includes the practice of crossing the baby’s arms and legs. A good massage usually takes about 15 minutes but more time will be given if the baby suffers from constipation.

“The massage develops muscle tone and acts like baby exercise. It helps the baby sleep well too,” she explained.

Then comes bath time.

Kalaivani follows the traditional practice of placing the baby on her legs to bathe them

Traditional Indian oil massage and bath

It is believed that a hot water bath on an oil-massaged body soothes and relaxes it. The baby is laid on the outstretched legs of the person who is giving the bath, with the head positioned at the ankles. The babies are given a bath while placed on the legs because it is easier to handle a slippery baby that way.  Many Indians believe this is also a lovely opportunity for skin-to-skin bonding with the baby.

Kalaivani avoids the use of chemical-based products such as shower gels and baby shampoos.

Instead, she makes her own traditional, special blends. She uses gram flour, powdered lentils and other powders, to bathe the baby.

“The baby is then laid on outstretched legs, doused with water, rubbed all over with the bath powder and rinsed clean.

“Although many babies cry during the bath, the after-effect is calming and relaxing for them,” she said. Many parents also attest to their babies sleeping soundly after their bath.

Once the bath is done, Kalaivani will blow the baby’s ears. This will prevent water from entering the ear canal. Then, the baby is towel-dried and smoked with the Indian incense called sambrani, which is also part of traditional practice.

Controversial customs

During the olden days, it was a common practice to squeeze a newborn’s nipples to get rid of the milk inside. Although some still do this when bathing a newborn, the practice has been deemed controversial.

This is because the milky discharge or Witch’s Milk from newborns’ nipples is quite common for babies, an effect from the exposure to hormones during pregnancy. Squeezing the milk out can cause bacteria to enter milk glands and lead to an infection of the breasts (mastitis).

Kalaivani prefers to stick to science when it comes to this ritual.

“I don’t practice squeezing the nipples to take out the milk. Mishandling can cause serious injury to the baby, especially if you don’t know what you are doing. I don’t encourage anyone doing it,’ she added.

Kalaivani massages the babies with techniques recommended by paediatricians

With modern mothers all over the world now convinced by the benefits of baby massage, it is not surprising that Indian mums continue to follow their traditions of the massage and bath. And with great sleep beckoning for their little babies, who can blame them!

Apart from Precious 30, there are countless other postnatal service providers that offer Indian traditional confinement packages to suit the high demand.

Businesses like Shaymala Confinement Service, Thanuja Maternity Care Confinement Services and Anu’s Mom Confinement Care Malaysia provide traditional packages, some of which come with added services like confinement food for the mother.

T.K. is a former political journalist who left the media industry to join the corporate communications world after the arrival of her baby. Her schedule is no less packed now as she runs after her one-year-old daughter, so she loves spending downtime snuggled up with her family on the sofa, watching baby television together.