The National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) reports that one in every 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome. Babies with Down syndrome are at higher risk for certain medical conditions, but according to the NDSS, advances have increased life expectancy from age 25 in 1980 to age 60 currently. In addition to more effective medical interventions, massage has proven to deliver several important benefits for infants with DS.
In a small study published in Early Human Development, researchers explored the effects of body massage on visual function in babies with Down syndrome and published their findings from a pilot study in 2014. Twenty infants between one and three months of age participated in the study. Half received standard care only—such as bi-monthly counseling—and the other half received massage in conjunction with the same standard care.
At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that babies with Down syndrome who received massage experienced improved visual acuity improved; and their depth perception developed sooner and maturation happened faster than the control group.
Tina Allen, L.M.T., C.P.M.M.T., C.P.M.T., C.I.M.T, founder and director of the Liddle Kidz Foundation, said that infant massage can play a very positive role in a child’s neurodevelopment and functioning. She applauded this study, and pointed out that, although the sample size was small, it “does show very promising results of the benefits in including infant massage as part of a comprehensive developmental treatment plan for children affected by Down syndrome.”
The study authors found that infant massage had a remarkable influence on the onset and development of stereopsis, or depth perception. But Allen pointed out that this development typically occurs at three to four months of age and continues to mature into the school-age years.
“The authors found a statistical significance between 5 and 12 months of age and linked this finding to the continuation of massage administered by the mothers after six months of age,” she said.
Help Babies with Down Syndrome
Parents interested in administering massage to their infants with Down syndrome should work with a certified infant massage teacher with a background in infant massage for special health care needs. “
When the parent or caregiver provides massage for an infant with Down syndrome, Allen suggested first beginning with a permission process, which includes eye contact, calm voice and gentle stroking of the skin.
“This not only provides for tactile stimulation, but a well-rounded approach implementing visual, auditory and proprioceptive stimulation throughout a child-led intervention,” she said.
According to Allen, gentle stroking to the skin stimulates neurological responses, causing a reaction within the body that “improves functioning, communication and maturation of cerebral and neurological activity.” She added, “When possible, it is best to employ infant massage techniques that stimulate both sides of the body, as well as incorporate gentle stroking, which crosses the mid-line.”
In this way the infant massage protocols applied would take into consideration precautions and contraindications that are common to children affected by this diagnosis,” Allen says.
Additionally, massage sessions should take place when the infant is in a quiet but alert state. “Many families find using short sessions, more often, to be the best approach for the use of infant massage,” Allen said.
Larger studies are needed, but the study results show strong support for touch therapy as a possible tool to help babies with Down syndrome.
About the Author
Phyllis Hanlon has written nonfiction articles and book reviews as well as human-interest stories, profiles and award-winning essays. Her specialty areas include health and medicine, religion, education and business. She regularly delights in the joys of massage. She has written many articles for MASSAGE Magazine, including “Does Massage with Arnica Improve Circulation?”