For hundreds of years, parents around the world have massaged their infants to soothe them and bond with them. But in the U.S., the practice isn’t very common.
Elina Furman, founder of a new brand called Kahlmi, wants to change that. She’s developed a $150 device that’s basically a Theragun for little ones, with low vibrations and a soft silicone wand customized for a baby’s anatomy. It’s part of a wave of beautifully designed but expensive parenting tools–from the $1,5000 SNOO bassinet to the $140 Lovevery play mat–targeting millennial parents.
Many cultures around the world practice infant massage, but it’s most associated with India. A 2000 study found that upwards of 85% of Indian parents massage their newborns in the baby’s first week of life. They use gentle strokes with minimal pressure and coconut or sesame oil. Parents in the study believed that massage supported the baby’s bone strength, while also encouraging better sleep and growth. There’s some research that supports this: A 2016 meta analysis found that massaging infants with oil increased their weights, length, and head circumference, but didn’t show improvements in their neurobehavioral scores.
Whitney Cesares, a pediatrician who has published two books with the American Academy of Pediatrics, says the benefits of baby massage are extensive and well researched. She points out that the practice has become popular over the past decade largely because parents are now encouraged to have extended skin-to-skin contact with their infants, as well as mindful, undistracted time to connect with them. The problem, however, is that there aren’t any science-backed guidelines about how to actually perform massage, despite organizations like Infant Massage USA and the International Association of Infant Massage that try to educate parents. “There are no guidelines about what strokes to use or even what baby oil to use,” she says.
Furman, who was trained as an infant massage educator, found that many American parents wanted to massage their babies but didn’t have the confidence. Furman compares infant massage to baby-wearing, a practice that was common in other countries for centuries, but only became popular in the U.S. and Europe in the 1960s when brands like BABYBJÖRN developed carriers that showed parents how to do it.
Manasa Mantravadi, a pediatrician who advises Kahlmi, was born in India and came to the U.S. when she was three. Her mother massaged her as an infant, and she did the same for her twins. Mantravadi says the experience was calming both for her newborns as well as for her. But she says the practice can feel daunting if people haven’t done it before. “If you don’t happen to have an Indian immigrant mother who can teach you the basics, you might need a tool to help you,” she says.
Furman spent two years developing the Kahlmi, drawing sketches and then working with Salt Lake City design firm Klug Onyx to bring the product to life. The Kahlmi is very quiet so it doesn’t overstimulate the baby, particularly before bedtime. It has three levels of vibration, depending on the baby’s age, and it can be used from birth until the teenage years, and even beyond. When I tested it on my five-month-old, I could see her eyes widen when she felt the gentle vibrations on her skin. At first, she was too wiggly for me to perform a proper massage, but when I gave her a toy to play with, I was able to massage her belly, which seemed to calm her down.
Furman wanted Kahlmi to be a multi-functional device that can ease gassiness or constipation, help babies sleep, or relax them in stressful situations, like getting shots. “We designed the neck of the Kahlmi to be thin enough that a baby can grasp it when they’re old enough to do so,” Furman says. “They can put it to their mouths, which can be soothing if their gums are uncomfortable from teething.”
Cesares says it’s hard to say for sure whether the Kahlmi itself is actually going to help babies because there isn’t any data about it yet. “From a pediatrician’s perspective, I would say that parents shouldn’t feel like they have to spend a lot of money to massage their child, since it is so easy to do it with your hands,” she says. “However, if there’s no harm associated with the device, I can see why a parent might want to buy it to increase their comfort level with a practice that feels foreign.”
The Kahlmi is beautifully designed, but at $150, it’s out of many parents’ reach, particularly since you don’t actually need it to perform a massage. Furman justifies the price by arguing that it can be used it many different contexts and for many years. And ultimately, she says, the device is meant to make infant massage easier and more pleasurable, but it’s not crucial. “In the end, people shouldn’t feel like they need expensive tools to be good parents,” says Cesares.