11-17 April 2014 #702

Baby Spa

Hariz Baharudin and Toh Ee Ming

Reviving the art of traditional baby massages

LOST ART: A day-old baby is gently lowered into a bucket of warm water which is used to replicate the warm environment of a mother's womb.
A nurse gently lifts the baby out of the thick swathe of blankets and begins to delicately massage the baby’s chest in a regular, clockwise motion. The baby is then bathed in a bucket of warm water and rubbed with mustard oil, until she gurgles in contentment and falls asleep.

This is one of the few techniques of Newari baby massage that was taught to nurses at Dhulikhel Hospital at a workshop held last week. The training, organised by Nasma Scheibler-Shrestha, is an attempt at reviving the art of traditional baby massages that ironically has seen a downfall at home, while gaining popularity elsewhere.

 Nasma is the woman responsible for taking this ancient Newari tradition to Europe. When Nasma, who settled in Zurich after marriage, had her first child, her mother wanted to give the baby a traditional oil massage. But the hospital staff objected, as they did not understand why a healthy baby would require a massage, recalls Nasma. But after much persistence, the hospital staff finally obliged. The episode motivated Nasma to promote this alternative practice and in 1986, she opened the Professional School of Baby Massage in Zurich, where she taught adapted Newari massage to suit the European lifestyle. Over 1000 students have since received the training.

Ashma Shrestha, a midwife from Austria, has returned to Nepal with the aim to train more locals in the art form

These massages are believed to promote better sleeping, relieve colic, prevent digestive problems and enhance the infant’s immune system. But most importantly, it gives the mother time to set aside a quiet space and communicate her love for the new-born through touch. According to pediatricians, such closeness is also necessary for the baby’s psychological and physical growth.

In Europe, time-starved working mothers have also started turning to baby massage as a way to bond with their child. However, it is not just women who sign up for classes. Fathers are doing it too. “When I first saw men in these classes, I was shocked as this doesn’t happen in Nepal,” says Ashma Shrestha, a midwife who trained under Nasma.

A Swiss volunteer demonstrates a baby massage technique, application of mustard oil before the massage is believed to keep the baby warm during the massage, babies are first massaged, bathed and then massaged with mustard oil


To suit the Western culture and habits, Nasma had to make a few changes. Heaters and carpets replaced traditional fire and straw mats. The knowledge that was passed down orally from mother to daughter is now written down in systematic steps. “We’re trying to preserve our tradition, but develop it in a modern way too,” says Nasma.

While the popularity of baby massages has seen a surge in Europe, over in Nepal, the practice is in danger of extinction as mindsets become more westernised. Nasma explains, “In Nepal, there is no written record of baby massage. The young parents have to rely on the customary oral tradition.  But with the growing popularity of nuclear families, this tradition is also getting lost.”

Nasmah shows participants how to make a carry-on from a long cloth.

 Nasma sees an urgent need to revitalise this tradition, and is working towards making people more aware. Currently, she is advocating for the baby massage to be carried out immediately after birth as mothers as per general practice are separated from their babies and kept aside to rest for two to three weeks. “After being in the womb for so long, they enter a new, unfamiliar world, and to keep them away from their mothers for so long is like punishing them,” says Nasma. Thus, it is important for the mother to hold the baby and reassure it, as it is their first contact.

But for that to happen, Nasma admits there needs to be regular, systematic training for professionals like mid-wives, pediatric nurses and physiotherapists, who can then spread their knowledge to future parents as she sought to do with her workshop.

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