More than half a million babies are born prematurely in the U.S. every year, according to the March of Dimes. These tiny infants arrive before 37 weeks gestation and usually weigh less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces. They face immediate risk for complications, such as respiratory, gastrointestinal, central nervous system, auditory and vision problems, as well as the possibility of physical and psychological challenges in the future.
Helping these babies boost their weight can bring several benefits. Several research studies report massage therapy can facilitate weight gain in preterm infants.
In 2001, Sheila Mathai and colleagues in India conducted a study using a massage protocol in preterm infants and found subjects gained an average of 4.24 grams per day over a control group. Moreover, on the Brazelton Scale, which assesses an array of newborn behaviors, the massage group showed statistically higher scores on orientation, range and regulation of state, and autonomic stability.
A meta-analysis conducted in 2004 by Andrew J. Vickers and his team of investigators found an average weight increase of 5.1 grams in infants who received massage; the findings also showed the study group had a shorter length of hospital stay by four-and-a-half days. More important, preterm babies who received massage showed positive effects on postnatal complications, as well as weight gain, at four to six months.
For more than three decades, the Touch Research Institute in Florida has conducted hundreds of studies on the benefits of touch therapy for infants, children and adults. One such study, conducted by Tiffany Field, Ph.D., Miguel Diego and Maria Hernandez-Reif in 2006, demonstrated that moderate versus light-pressure massage therapy can lead to greater weight gain in premature infants.
In the study, 68 preterm babies were randomly assigned to receive massage with either light or moderate pressure. The infants had 15 massages, three times a day for five days. The protocol involved tactile stimulation and flexion and extension of upper and lower extremities; therapy focused on the head, jaws, arms, legs, stomach, heels, feet and back. At the end of the study, the infants who received moderate-pressure massage showed a 21 to 48 percent greater weight gain and had a shorter hospital stay by three to six days than the control group, which received a lighter touch massage.
The study determined that massage stimulates weight gain in premature babies by increasing gastric motility and decreasing cortisol levels, which leads to insulin secretion. In combination, these two actions work to increase the baby’s weight.
Even though several other studies support these findings, only 38 percent of neonatal intensive care units offer this therapy for preterm babies, according to Field. For massage therapists who are properly trained and have experience, this dearth of programs can be an opportunity to expand one’s practice and help the most vulnerable patients.
With proper credentials, a well-thought out plan and the support of these various studies, a therapist might be able to convince hospital personnel that a massage program for babies born prematurely could promote weight gain, reduce expensive hospital stays and help these tiny patients achieve normal developmental milestones on schedule.