A recent pilot study has shown that massage applied to preterm infants with very low birth weights resulted in improved motor skills among those infants who showed especially low motor skills at the start of the study.

“The impact of massage therapy on motor outcomes in very low birth weight infants: a randomized controlled pilot study” involved 24 preterm infants with very low birth weights. These babies were born around 34 weeks, and each weighed less than 1,500 grams—or less than 3.5 pounds.

Subjects were randomly assigned to either a massage group or sham massage group. Those in the massage group received a 15-minute massage session five days a week for four weeks. Moderate pressure was applied to the extent that each subject’s skin showed both a slight indentation and color change.

Babies in the sham massage group received a 15-minute session of gentle still touch five days a week for four weeks. During the sham treatment, there was no indentation of the skin or any color change, which indicates the lack of pressure used during these sham sessions.

Measurements were taken before the start of the study and four weeks later, after the last intervention session. These measurements included daily calorie intake, body weight and motor performance, as assessed by the Test of Infant Motor Performance. Date of discharge of each subject also was used as a marker for this study.

Overall, results of the research revealed no statistically significant difference in scores on the Test of Infant Motor Performance or in weight gain between the massage group and the sham massage group.

However, an analysis of those subjects with low motor skill scores at the start of the study did show a significant improvement in motor skills among those infants in the massage group as compared to those in the sham group.

“Infants with poor initial motor performance had significantly more improvements in motor outcomes and shorter length of hospital stay following massage therapy than sham treatment,” state the study’s authors. “These trends should be further explored in a future study.”

As for the lack of improvements among the other infants in the massage group, the researchers speculate this may be due to a number of factors, including a small sample size and less frequent, but longer, massage sessions.

“In previous studies, massage was applied more frequently (three times a day) but for a shorter period of time (one to two weeks),” state the study’s authors, “whereas in our study, massage was applied once per day for four weeks.”

Authors: Yuen-Bing Ho, Robert SY Lee, Chun-Bong Chow and Marco YC Pang.

Sources: Physiotherapy and pediatric departments, Princess Margaret Hospital, Hong Kong; and Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong. Originally published in Pediatrics International (Sept. 15, 2009).