How the West Bastardized Baby Massages

As U.S. practitioners “discover” the millennia-old tradition from the Indian subcontinent, what gets lost in the process?

GettyImages-167070551 Baby Massages
Woman massaging her baby with oil, picture taken in Nepal (BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Vaishnavi Naidu


April 18, 2024


10 min

“Turn the baby in a downward position and start from the neck, using your thumb and fingertips to massage,” Nagamani Podri demonstrates as she rapidly strokes and massages the 5-month-old in her lap. She’s a 35-year-old maid in Hyderabad, India. When she’s not doing her daily household chores for middle- to upper-class families, she transforms into a post-natal baby and mother massager. She has no formal training but carries the wealth of a tradition passed down through generations. “I have three daughters and one son,” she said. “I did this massage for all my kids and learned it from my mother.” 

Though massaging a newborn might seem slightly odd, it comes from Shishu Abhyanga, a millennia-old Ayurvedic practice. But, more recently, baby massages have also spread in the West, largely due to Vimala McClure, who founded the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) in the U.S. in 1981, an organization that has since spread to 70 countries, from Brazil to the U.A.E. 

As of 2020, over 85% of Indian parents follow the practice, and 99.7% of Nepali newborns receive a massage within their first 14 days. In the U.S., one organization said it’s reached at least 23,000 families since 2005 and another has purportedly created a $150 “Theragun for babies” based on the Indian practice. But as the tradition proliferates from the East to the West, who gets to be the expert?

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