When JoAnn Lewis' young son developed colic more than 20 years ago, a midwife taught her a basic tummy massage stroke to help calm his digestive tract.

When JoAnn Lewis' young son developed colic more than 20 years ago, a midwife taught her a basic tummy massage stroke to help calm his digestive tract.

Blown away by the simplicity of the technique, Lewis wondered why a doctor hadn't taught her any infant massage methods.

"It seemed so simple at the time," said Lewis, who was inspired to learn more about infant massage through the experience.

Her son now grown, Lewis has fully immersed herself in infant massage and is one of 18 certified trainers in the country.

Massage is an important but often forgotten custom, said Lewis, who is the director of the Ashland Family Massage Education Center.

"Massage is the No. 1 habit we need to get back," said Lewis. "We've become this touch-phobic society."

Lewis said she believes that when infants are massaged, they are more likely to be healthier and smarter. She also believes that massage between an infant and a parent creates a deeper family bond.

According to the Touch Research Institute in Miami, premature babies exposed to massage are more successful at gaining weight, and have lower rates of fussing, crying and stressful behavior.

To help spread infant massage throughout the world, Lewis and another certified infant masseuse traveled to Haiti earlier this month to conduct two training workshops for Haitians.

The two trainers taught 59 people during two five-day sessions, putting each participant on the road to infant massage certification.

"They were proud, beautiful people and they were very attentive," said Lewis.

The participants were trained on baby dolls, and then immediately taught the techniques to parents who brought their own babies.

Lewis said that Haiti, devastated by the 2010 earthquake, reached out to the International Association of Infant Massage to help relearn the forgotten cultural custom of massage.

Since the earthquake, parents suffer from stress and are overwhelmed with other responsibilities, and some have begun neglecting their babies, Lewis said.

For a normally "touchy-feely" culture, the parents were having trouble catching cues of their babies' needs and feeling disconnected.

When the IAIM reached out to certified trainers, Lewis and another trainer from Infant Massage USA — Jody Wright of Minnesota — answered the call.

An infant massage researcher, Vonda Jump Norman, also came.

Because the Haitians had no money to spend on the trainings, Lewis and Wright had to raise the money themselves.

The cost of the trip, which was mostly eaten up by airfare and the wages of two translators during the 10 days of training, totaled nearly $8,000.

Lewis said they raised most of the money, but have kept an IndieGoGo fundraising page up in hopes that a few late donations for the trip will help the masseuses break even.

Lewis will hold a 45-minute presentation about her trip, sharing pictures and videos, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 29, at the education center, 1081 E. Main St., Ashland.

The Haitians who attended the trainings included medical professionals such as doctors and medical techs, as well as a psychologist and many nurses. In order to become fully certified, each participant must complete a five-family practicum on their own, teaching massage to others.

Lewis said 20 more adults are on a waiting list for the trainings, and the Haitians were eager to invite Lewis and Wright back.

"They immediately asked us when we were coming back," she said.

Lewis said she'd like to organize another trip or a more established training program in Haiti, and is researching grant opportunities to support the idea financially.

In the meantime, Lewis is focusing on her own parent-baby massage class, one of a handful of classes she teaches at the education center.

A new five-week session will start Saturday at the center. The class is $125, but students can pay based on a sliding scale of income, and some limited scholarships are available.

Lewis said the classes offer a confident bond between parent and child, and can help babies sleep more and cry less.

More information can be found on the education center website at www.HelloFMEC.com or by attending the center's next First Friday event on April 4.

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.