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Massaging Preterm Infants Enhances Growth

By Alex A. Kecskes

After over two decades of research, experts have concluded that massaging stable preterm infants leads to greater weight gains and earlier discharge. There appears to be a biological cause and effect between stroking, massaging,  and grooming infants and their growth.  Some studies show that massage stimulates growth-promoting hormones. Massage therapy also increases the enzymes that make the cells of an infant's vital organs more responsive to the growth-promoting effects of these hormones.

Conversely, researchers have discovered that infants deprived of massage therapy showed lower levels of growth hormone. Even when infants were given injections of growth hormone, they failed to grow at a rate comparable to massaged infants. This suggests that massaging impacts infants at the cellular level.

Other studies specifically show that massage therapy has consistently led to increased weight gains in preterm infants. While massaged infants do not consume or retain more formula, weight gains are believed to be due to better conversion of food into growth. Some believe this to be due to a reduced adverse reaction to stress. It has also been suggested that an infant's energy expenditure drops considerably after several days of massage therapy. This drop in expended energy may be partly responsible for the enhanced growth caused by massage therapy.

A prospective, crossover design study  was conducted in 10 healthy infants. Each infant was studied twice, first after a period of five days of massage therapy, then after a period of five days without massage therapy. During the massage therapy period, massage was provided daily for three 15-minute periods at the beginning of each three-hour period every morning. Energy expenditure was significantly lower in infants after the five-day massage therapy period.

In another study , 40 medically stable preterm infants were assigned to treatment and control groups. The treated infants received tactile/kinesthetic stimulation for three 15-minute periods during three consecutive hours per day for a 10-day period. Sleep/wake behavior was monitored and the infants were evaluated at the beginning and at the end of the treatment period. The treated infants averaged a 21% greater weight gain per day.

Infants should be massaged in a warm quiet place. Oils, first warmed by the hands, should be used. The most common are fruit or vegetable oils—such as coconut, almond, apricot, safflower, or avocado. Begin with the legs, then follow with the abdomen. Move to the hands and arms, then proceed to the back and finally the face.  Be sure to consult a trained medical professional before beginning  massage therapy on preterm infants.
Researchers found that massaged babies sleep more soundly and fall asleep more quickly. Many mothers report that after their babies were massaged, their babies slept soundly and many simply fell asleep in the middle of a massage.

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