Infant massage is practiced in most parts of the world. In many of those places, infants are given a massage with oil after their daily bath and before nighttime sleep for the first several years of their lives. As research and press continue to report the benefits of infant massage, parents in the United States have begun massaging their infants to:
▪ promote positive relationships
▪ reduce infant distress following painful procedures, such as inoculations
▪ lower pain from colic, constipation and teething
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▪ reduce sleep problems
As a side benefit, massaging your baby has been shown to help parents, too.
At the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, we have been researching massage therapy effects on premature newborns for almost 30 years. The results from our studies show the positive benefit massage can provide. On average, massaged premature infants have gained 47 percent more weight than those who were not massaged. They also were more awake, active and alert. Most notably, they were discharged to their parents from the hospital six days sooner at hospital costs savings of approximately $10,000 per infant, translating into $4.7 billion saved per year if all pre-term infants in the United States were massaged.
Other positive effects from massage include reduced postpartum depression; enhanced parent-infant interactions; more mature EEG activity and visual function; reduced stress, as reflected by lower stress hormone levels; increased length and head circumference; and improved neurologic, motor and behavior development. Infants who were massaged also had better sleep patterns, decreased pain responses, lower energy expenditure, increased heart rate variability, increased insulin and IGF-1 (growth hormone), increased gastric motility for food absorption, increased bone formation and a lesser incidence of immune dysfunction.
Potential causes for the weight gain have been explored in several studies. One study suggested that the weight gain was related to improved gastric function, which is thought to lead to more efficient food absorption. In another study, the massaged pre-term infants showed greater weight gain due to increased insulin and IGF-1 levels. Reduced energy expenditure was also reported by a group using metabolic measurements.
Whether you use rubbing, kneading or stroking, moderate pressure massage —– or moving the skin — is key. Light pressure is too much like tickling and leads to squirming and fussing. When we have compared these two types of pressures, the moderate pressure massage group gained more weight per day, and they were less fussy and displayed less stress behavior, such as hiccupping. They also showed lower heart rate and greater activity in the vagus nerve that may, in turn, explain their improved immune function.
In the best of all possible worlds premature delivery would not happen. In at least three studies, we have reported that massage therapy for pregnant women decreased their stress hormones and lowered the prematurity rate. In addition, newborns of depressed mothers who received moderate versus light pressure massage during pregnancy had more optimal performance as newborns. In this study, the group of babies less than a month old whose mothers received moderate pressure massage during pregnancy spent a greater percent of the observation time smiling and vocalizing, and they received better scores on developmental tests.
Children with many different conditions, including healthy children, have also benefited from their parents massaging them as part of their bedtime routine. These have included children with chronic illnesses like asthma and diabetes, skin conditions such as burns and eczema, attention/sleep disorders including ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, pain syndromes such as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and terminal illnesses like HIV and cancer.
Massage isn’t all about the recipient. The massager can benefit as much as the baby. For example, when mothers, fathers and grandparents have massaged infants, they experienced positive effects, including less stress and lower stress hormones. Like diet and exercise, a daily dose of massage is good for everyone.
Tiffany Field, Ph.D., is director of the Touch Research Institute in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. UHealth – University of Miami Health System is nationally and internationally acclaimed for education, research, patient care and biomedical innovation. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.