Massaging Premature Babies

Massage Therapy in the NICU and at Home

A father massaging his baby.
A dad massaging his newborn baby. Image copyright Tosca Radigonda / Getty Images

Infant massage is a wonderful way to bond with your premature baby, and it has many other positive effects for you and your preemie as well. Whether your baby is still in the NICU or is home with your family, massage therapy can help your baby grow to be strong, happy and healthy.

Benefits of Massage for Preemies

Even small doses of infant massage can have big benefits for premature babies and their mothers.

Premature babies who receive massage by trained therapists following specific guidelines show the following benefits:

  • Increased weight gain: Many studies have shown that even small doses of infant massage can help preemies gain weight faster. It's hard to get good nutrition to premature babies, both because they're small at birth and because they have immature digestive systems, but we know that catch-up growth is important for future health.
  • Shorter NICU stay: NICU stays are expensive and cause babies and their families to lose out on valuable bonding time. Babies who receive massage therapy in the NICU go home as early as 6 days sooner than other babies. This not only saves as much as $10,000 per baby, but it helps to get babies into their home environments almost a week sooner.
  • Higher infant development scores: The Brazelton Scale is an assessment that looks at how a newborn baby responds to the environment. Babies who've had massage therapy tend to have higher scores on the Brazelton exam, showing that they have more organized and mature responses to the world around them.
  • Increased bone mineral density: Premature babies who receive massage therapy may have stronger bones than preemies who don't. This is especially important to preemies because they're at risk for fractures and bone disease as they grow.
  • Better immune response: Research is just beginning to look at the immune benefits of massaging preemies. Preliminary studies show that massage may have some immunological benefits for preemies, though further research is needed in this area, especially since preemies are at risk for health problems throughout childhood.

    Not only does it help babies, but when a mom acts as the masseuse, there are benefits for her as well. Studies have shown that preemie moms who massage their babies have less depression and less anxiety. Having a premature baby in the NICU is hard, and anything that can help a family to cope with premature birth is welcome.

    How to Massage Your Baby

    Good infant massage requires a complex group of skills taught by an experienced massage therapist. There are many ways that you can learn how to massage your baby.

    First, ask if your baby's hospital has an infant massage program. Almost 40% of NICUs do, and you may be surprised to discover that your hospital is one of them. If it is, schedule a time to come in during your baby's massage so that you can learn from your baby's therapist.

    If your hospital does not have such a program, you can also learn infant massage from a private instructor certified through the International Association of Infant Massage, or from a book such as Infant Massage: A Handbook for Loving Parents.

    The basics of infant massage for preemies are pretty simple: use clean hands and perform massage in a warm room or in the infant's incubator. Babies need to be stable before beginning a massage program, so wait until your baby is healthy before beginning.

    Talk to your nurses about the best times to try a massage with your baby, following these guidelines:

    • Use moderate pressure: Massage with pressure that is too light can tickle and isn't effective, while pressure that's too firm can be painful. Moderate pressure is perfect.
    • Use high-grade oil: Using oil can enhance the benefits of infant massage. High-grade coconut and safflower oils have been studied on premature babies.
    • Use stroking or limb movement: When you massage your baby, you can use stroking movements, or you can bend and stretch their limbs. Both have benefits for premature babies.

    Ideally, you should do 2 or 3 sessions per day, and each session should last 10 to 15 minutes.

    By beginning infant massage with your preemie in the NICU, you've started your family on a therapy program that will help both mom and baby for a long time to come.

    Resources:

    Ang, J., et at. "A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial of Massage Therapy on the Immune System of Preterm Infants." Pediatrics. Nov. 2012: 130, e1549-e1558.

    The Brazelton Institute. "The Brazelton Scale: What Is It?  http://www.brazelton-institute.com/intro.html.

    Field, T., Diego, M., and Hernandez-Reif, M. "Preterm Infant Massage Therapy Research: A Review." Infant Behavior and Development. Apr. 2010: 33, 115-124.

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