New research indicates massage therapy contributes to improved autonomic nervous system (ANS) development in premature babies.

“Preterm birth impairs the infant’s stress response due to interruption of [ANS] development,” the investigators noted, “and preterm infants demonstrate a prolonged and aberrant sympathetic response to stressors.”

They hypothesized that ANS development may be promoted by massage therapy, “which has been shown to improve stress response in preterm infants.”

The study compared preterm infant ANS function and stress response during sleep and caregiving epochs, as measured by heart rate variability (HRV), after two weeks of twice-daily massage therapy. Low to high frequency (LF:HF) ratio of HRV was the outcome of interest.

Among the results:

• Male control infants demonstrated a significant decline in LF:HF ratio from baseline to the second caregiving epoch, suggesting decreased mobilization of sympathetic nervous system response when exposed to stressors.

• Male infants in the massage therapy group demonstrated increased LF:HF ratio during caregiving and decreased LF:HF ratio during sleep epochs, suggesting improved ANS function, although this was not statistically significant.

• LF:HF ratio was similar in female infant in the massage therapy group and female control infants during caregiving and sleep.

The study “Heart rate variability during caregiving and sleep after massage therapy in preterm infants” was conducted at the University of Louisville, School of Nursing, in Louisville, Kentucky. and ran in the journal Early Human Development, published by Elsevier.

Editor’s note: Read the feature article, “Infant Massage: Healthy Babies, Happy Families,” in the February 2013 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.