- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

Maya Dutton has that trancelike look in her eyes that only a massage can elicit - utter relaxation.

But Maya is not your typical massage client. She’s wearing pink bloomers and is only 8 months old. And her masseuse is her own mother, Wendy Dutton.

The two are enrolled in an infant massage class at Hela Spa in Georgetown where they’re learning to give and receive massage.

“It’s comforting and restful for both of us. And it allows for focused attention,” says Ms. Dutton, adding that infant massage is a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the big city, perfectly illustrated by M Street, the District’s premier retail corridor, just outside the spa window.

Inside, however, warm natural light dances through the window along with New Age music flowing from hidden speakers.

Seated on the floor on a white, fluffy comforter is class instructor Mary Szegda and three mother-infant pairs.

“Breathe deeply and place your hand on your baby’s tummy,” Ms. Szegda says in a calming voice while illustrating on a baby doll.

The real babies are lying on their backs, stripped to their diapers and bloomers.

As Ms. Szegda shows the mothers how to do the “Indian milking stroke” - moms gently but firmly grab and embrace one ankle and move up baby’s leg - it is perfectly quiet, harmonious and peaceful.

“It’s a kind of hug-and-glide stroke,” Ms. Szegda says.

And then one of the little ones - ages range from 8 weeks to 8 months; the class is geared toward pre-mobile babies - starts whimpering. The tenuous silence is broken.

Ms. Szegda reassures and says babies and mothers are welcome to take a cuddle break whenever it’s needed.

“One of the most important things we can do in this class is to listen to the baby’s cues,” Ms. Szegda says.

Infant massage is not about replicating adult massage, she says. It’s true that it’s partly about improving blood circulation and relaxation, which can lead to improved sleep and digestion, but it’s primarily about creating a strong bond between child and parent.

Suzanne Reese, author of “Baby Massage - Soothing Strokes for Healthy Growth,” echoes the sentiment.

“The key is that infant massage is baby-led,” Ms. Reese says on the phone from San Diego. “It’s not a doing ‘to’ the baby. It’s a doing ‘with’ the baby.”

In other words, when Maya rolls over or whimpers or protests in some way, her mother has to back off and try another approach.

“We have to step out of the task-oriented role that we’re so used to,” Ms. Reese says. “Let the baby tell you what he or she wants.”

Throughout the class, Ms. Szegda follows the ebbs and flows of the babies’ moods and activity levels. She shows on her doll how different strokes can be done whether the baby is lying down or sitting up.

“Just massage in the direction of their body,” she says. “Not against their natural inclination.”

As she moves from massaging baby’s legs to massaging baby’s back - using two fingers to make little circles on either side of the spine - she says dads can feel free to use this technique on moms.

“This feels good on adults, too,” she says, seemingly intending the words for Philip Wright, who’s watching while wife, Natalya Scimeca, and their 8-week-old son, Simon, participate in the class.

Mr. Wright is planning to participate in infant massage classes in the early spring.

“It’s something I can do with him that’s not at 3 a.m.,” Mr. Wright says and smiles.

After about 60 minutes - although only about 10 minutes have been devoted to actual massage as the babies have been busy nursing, cuddling, sleeping and squirming - the class winds down.

But no one’s upset that every single second wasn’t used to learn massage techniques. On the contrary.

“Mary’s great about giving guidance while making everyone feel relaxed and comfortable,” Ms. Dutton says. “We’re all in the same boat, and the last thing we need is to feel stressed out about our baby crying in infant massage class.”

In the end, comfort is what it’s all about. Comfort with oneself and others, Ms. Reese says.

If the infant feels that his or her needs - even at a pre-verbal level - are recognized and respected by the parent, it helps build lifelong trust and comfort.

“It’s basic human virtues in action,” Ms. Reese says. “My needs are being recognized. I’m important.”

The 4-lesson package is $200; one-on-one lessons purchased separately are $100; a drop-in class is available every third Monday of the month for $65. For more information, visit www.helaspa.com or call 202/333-4445.

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