A group of infants diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) showed a significant reduction in stress, as measured by cortisol, after receiving massage at home for 30 minutes twice a week for six weeks, according to recent research.

The study, “Benefits of massage therapy for infants with symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease,” involved 36 infants ages six to 10 weeks. The babies were healthy except for the diagnosis of GERD.

The infants were randomly assigned to either the massage group or the nonmassage control group. Those in the control group received a 30-minute nonmassage sham session at home, twice a week for six weeks. Those in the massage group received a 30-minute massage session at home, twice a week for six weeks.

Each session was scheduled in the late afternoon or evening, 90 minutes after the most recent feeding to reduce the chances of reflux during the session. Two certified therapists experienced in infant massage performed the massage sessions. A graduate nursing student experienced in infant care and a pediatric physical therapist performed the nonmassage sham sessions. The babies were allowed to have a pacifier during all sessions, and a warming pad on low heat and covered with a blanket was used if the room felt cool.

For the massage sessions, moderate hand pressure was used, and the therapist focused on each of the following six areas for five minutes per area: face and head, chest, abdomen, legs and feet, arms and hands, and back.

For the nonmassage sessions, the therapist placed one hand over the other and, using pressure that was light and consistent, rested the hand on each of the following 10 areas for one minute per area: forehead, each upper arm, chest, abdomen, each thigh, each shoulder and back. For the remaining 20 minutes, the infant was held vertically on the therapist’s shoulder. According to the study’s authors, this is similar to the touching and holding a mother might provide.

Symptoms of GERD served as the primary outcome measure in this study, and these were evaluated using the revised Infant Gastroesophageal Reflux Questionnaire. This questionnaire contains 12 questions related to GERD symptoms, such as amount of daily crying and instances of regurgitation. Other outcome measures included weight, amount of sleep and salivary cortisol levels.

The Results

Results of the research showed that infants in both groups experienced decreased GERD symptoms and increased weight. However, only in the massage group did salivary cortisol levels decrease significantly during the six-week study period. In the nonmassage group, these levels increased.

“MT administered by a professional therapist did not affect symptoms of GERD differently than a sham treatment but did decrease infant stress as measured by cortisol,” state the study’s authors. “Research focusing on stress reduction in infants with GERD and multimodal treatments addressing GERD symptoms may yield the most effective treatment.”


Authors: Madalynn Neu, Zhaoxing Pan, Rachel Workman, Cassandra Marcheggiani-Howard, Glenn Furuta and Mark Laudenslager.

Sources: College of Nursing and Department of Pediatrics, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Denver, and Gastrointestinal Eosinophilic Diseases Program, Children’s Hospital Colorado, Aurora. Originally published in December 2013 in Biological Research for Nursing.