Stimulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) through massage may enhance infant performance on cognitive tasks, according to a research study by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
A study published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development in 1997 showed that infants who received massage prior to a habituation task performed better than infants who were not massaged prior to the task.
The habituation task is used to measure cognitive abilities by presenting a visual image to an infant and then documenting the time it takes the infant to become accustomed, or habituated, to the image. Habituation is measured by tracking eye movement: an infant will look away after becoming habituated to an image. The amount of time it takes to achieve habituation is thought to reflect how quickly an infant processes information. The image is then changed slightly and presented again, for a calculation of response recovery rate, or the amount of time it took for an infant to recognize that something has changed.
Fifty-six healthy 4-month-old infants were randomly placed in either a massage group or a play group. In the massage group, the infants were given an eight-minute massage with baby oil. The infants received gentle, deep rubbing and stroking on their chest, legs, feet, arms, hands, neck, head and back.
Infants in the play group were entertained with a red teething ring that was playfully waved back and forth in front of them by an experimenter for eight minutes. Infants were permitted to touch the ring.
At the end of each eight-minute session, the infant was placed in front of a video monitor. A control image of a wind-up toy with fluttery arm movements was shown on the monitor to initially arouse the infant’s interest. Then a film was shown of two toy hammers, a red hammer against a black background and a blue hammer against a gray background. Both hammers were tapping out the same rhythm, but one had a faster tempo than the other. Once an infant became habituated, which meant looking away from the image for 1.5 continuous seconds, a slightly different film was shown, depicting the opposite-color hammer tapping out the faster tempo.
Results showed that although massage did not affect the time it took the infants to habituate to an image, it did help the infants to discriminate differences in the film images more quickly than those in the play group. Thus, massage helped the infants’ rate of response recovery.
“It is possible that massage facilitated response recovery from habituation by enhancing arousal associated with increased ANS activity,” according to the study.
The study authors suggested future research into the relationship between massage and ANS activity of infants, and the inclusion of developmentally delayed or at-risk infants.
Source: Touch Research Institute. Originally printed in the journal Infant Behavior and Development, Vol. 20 (1), 1997, pp. 29-34.