Back in November 2010 my son, Evan was born. My wife was very proactive and was always looking to do whatever she could to improve his well-being and development. Water Babies was an obvious choice of activity because we were keen on getting him used to water and able to swim as soon as possible (for family holidays abroad etc). My wife also chose baby massage as an activity for them in the first few months. She enjoyed attending the sessions and felt that they were of value because Evan enjoyed massage and she felt it strengthened the bond between them.
However, she mentioned in passing some very interesting claims of benefits that were being touted by the massage instructor and associated literature. Now, being a skeptic, I could help myself and had to go and check on some of the more dubious ones such as that massage boosts the immune system and aids digestion. I also found these claims being made on the International Association of Infant Massge (UK Chapter) website.
I found no such support for these claims in any scientific studies and so felt that it was up to me to bring it to the attention of the IAIM that they may be in breach of ASA advertising codes. I was also open to the possibility that I was wrong and simply hadn't looked hard enough so I suggested that they cite the evidence on their website. This was around the time when many in the skeptic community were scrubbing UK web pages of woo and homeopathy.
I didn't hear back from them directly, however I did notice that the specific claims of benefits to immune and digestive systems had been removed and some wording changed. Recently I revistited their web site to take another look at the claims and investigate some of the other ones a little more. Included was a claimed benefit to infant development which was not only unsupported, but had also been concluded to be not true by a Cochrane review.
Here's the email I sent to the IAIM (UK Chapter):
From: Johnathan Stabler [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: 05 April 2012 16:17
Subject: Massage Benefit Claims on IAIM Website
I sent you an email on 25/072011 pointing out that some of the claimed benefits of infant massage on your website were not supported by clinical evidence. I have noticed that the claim of "boosts immune system" has now been removed and "helps digestion" has been changed to "stimulation of...digestion...systems". While I am still concerned about your use of the word "stimulation" and the implication of benefits, I'd like to draw your attention to another statement on your website at http://www.iaim.org.uk/what_benefits.htm that claims "helping with language development, memory and concentration". I took the liberty of, once again, checking medical publication websites for trials/studies related to infant massage and this specific claim and once again drew a blank. In fact, a Cochrane systematic review concluded that there was no evidence of effects on cognitive and behavioural outcomes.
If there is evidence for the efficacy of infant massage in such matters then I suggest you update your website and literature to cite such studies. If there are none then you are likely to be in breach of ASA advertising codes. Currently it would seem that the Wikipedia article on Infant Massage is better able to substantiate claims and cite sources than your organisation.
In my previous email I also sought assurances that massage instructors were not making unsubstantiated claims of benefits. However, I was disappointed that my email was not even acknowledged, let alone information provided on how your members were being educated about the importance of evidence-based practise.
And here is the reply:
Many thanks for writing to the IAIM. Your enquiry has been referred to our committee board who will reply back to you shortly. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any other queries in the meantime.
International Association of Infant Massage (UK) Chapter
Suite 10, 96 George Lane
Tel : 020 8989 9597
Registered Company : 6832002
Some people may ask me why I bothered? It's a helpful activity that provides mother and baby with many emotional benefits and there is nothing to suggest it causes any harm. However, baby massage courses cost money and are sources of income for the massage instructors. Also, the promotional literature tells parents that the course is of value and provides benefits that they wouldn't get otherwise. It could even be (indirectly) construed that you'd be denying youself and child something if you didn't do it. I believe all claims should be substantiated, no matter the potential for harm or the amount of money being made.
I will keep you up to date!