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Massage Can Strengthen Preterm Infant's Immune System

Massage Can Strengthen Preterm Infant's Immune System

By Alex A. Kecskes

It is widely acknowledged that preterm infants are exposed to a number of stresses in pre-natal facilities, including loud noises, bright lights, suctioning and intubation procedures, and the drawing of blood. Stresses like these can negatively impact an infant's immune system.

Massage therapy can help. It has been used to reduce stress in premature infants and to improve cellular immunity. Usually isolated in incubators that protect them, preemies receive considerably less tactile contact than full-term babies in the critically important first days and weeks of life. One reason for this is that many nurses are hesitant to begin massage therapy for fear of over-stimulating the infant and dealing with other safety concerns. Yet recent research has shown that infant massage therapy offers significant benefits.

Research conducted by the Touch Research Institute and led by Tiffany Field, Ph.D., at the University of Miami revealed a number of benefits associated with infant massage. Her published studies suggest that massage can stimulate the immune system and thereby increase an infant's resistance to infection. Research also revealed that infant massage could result in enhanced growth in preterm infants, decreased autoimmune problems (where a baby's immune system literally attacks the body's own tissues), increased lung function in asthma, and decreased glucose levels in infants with diabetes.

Massage therapy was shown to contribute to a rise in natural killer cells in babies afflicted with HIV and cancer. These effects resulted when the massages served to decrease an infant's stress hormones. Premature infants who were gently massaged also produced higher levels of secreted immunoglobulin A, which protects against respiratory tract infections. Another benefit associated with infant massage was a reduction in cortisol (a hormone secreted when the human body is under stress). Massage even stimulated the production of oxytocin (a hormone that acts as a natural pain reliever and provides a calming effect to the infant).

Other studies showed that preterm infants who received daily massages averaged 47 percent more weight gain than infants in a control group. These studies further suggest that the withholding touch therapy from preterm infants in intensive care may delay their recovery from colds and diarrhea.

How does infant massage work to achieve these benefits? Gentle massage directly stimulates the body's musculoskeletal, nervous and circulatory systems, which in turn affects the biochemical and physiological processes regulated by those systems.

When administering a massage, choose a place that is warm, quiet and comfortable for the baby. Use a light, organic, cold-pressed vegetable oil, such as safflower or almond. Massage softly using long, slow and rhythmic strokes. Listen to and watch your baby's reactions and respond accordingly. The baby will communicate when he or she has had enough or when to continue.

It should be noted that massage is not a substitute for medical care and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  Consult a medical doctor before undergoing any massage treatments on an infant.