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The first research that looked at the positive effects of massage for preterm babies was conducted back in 1964. Since that time, dozens of studies have confirmed massage is a great complementary technique for infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
For mothers whose babies are born preterm, there is perhaps nothing more stressful than watching, hoping and waiting for the day they can finally take their baby home. Research shows it is not uncommon for parents to experience high psychological stress, including feelings of helplessness, if their baby is born preterm.
In a new study, published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine in March of 2019, researchers looked at how massage done by mothers on their preterm babies can positively affect not only the physical and mental development of their babies, but the mothers’ mental state as well.
Babies who are born preterm often need many sophisticated medical interventions to compensate for intrauterine development they didn’t complete. Sensory stimulation is one developmental area preterm infants lack, which can cause physical and mental challenges as they grow up. However, massage is one way to compensate for touch sensory stimulation that wasn’t completed in utero. It is also a complementary intervention that is relatively easy to learn and perform, leading more hospitals to teach the mothers to perform the massage rather than a nurse or doctor.
Practically speaking, massage done by the mother instead of a nurse reduces the cost from an already expensive hospital stay, and massage, in general, is a safe therapy without adverse side effects, drug reactions or interactions.
For the infant, physical contact with the mother accelerates their physical and mental growth and development. Massage can increase blood flow to the skin, improve stress and create a pleasant feeling. Affectionate touching by the mother reduces the infants risk of crying and getting sick as well. It also improves the relationship between the mother and infant, which can have significant positive effects on the mothers’ mental state.
Research shows mothers who give birth preterm and have babies in the NICU are more likely to experience a delay in feeling confident as a mother and often need time to adjust to any physical or mental challenges their baby may have because of the time in the NICU versus full-term infants. This is one reason massage done by the mother can be so helpful for mothers themselves. Learning how to massage their preterm infants increases mothers’ confidence, helps them reach what scholars call “attainment of the maternal role” more quickly, and improves their connection with their baby.
The 2019 study showed mothers who performed massage on their preterm infants experienced significantly lower levels of anxiety, depression, fatigue and confusion, all of which can adversely affect the level of care they are able to provide to their baby. It aligns with previous studies that have shown mothers who perform massage on their preterm infants experience improvement in postpartum depression.
The researchers suggest teaching mothers to massage their preterm infants is an important nonpharmacologic strategy to improve the development of NICU babies and the mood of their mothers.