Premature babies can sometimes have an underdeveloped immune system, which can subsequently lead to various infections. Unfortunately, premature babies are more susceptible to sepsis, a life-threatening condition in which infection spreads into the bloodstream.
Luckily, a premature baby’s immune system can greatly benefit from gentle massage, according to a new study by the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. In the study, premature babies who received massage had more powerful immune cells capable of killing off unwanted pathogens. These same babies tended to gain more weight each day, and had a higher bodyweight at the study’s conclusion regardless of original birth weight. Best of all, researchers found that premature baby massage produced no negative side effects.
A Carefully Controlled Study
In order to conduct their study, the researchers examined 120 premature babies housed in a neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. The infants were assigned to two groups, one of which received 45 minutes of gentle massage 5 days per week for a total of 4 weeks, and one of which did not. The massages were given by trained nurses who gently stroked the babies and extended and flexed their arms and legs.
Only stable babies, or ones that did not require antibiotics, catheters or supplemental oxygen, were included in the study. Infants were also excluded from the study if they had breast-fed, since breast milk includes antibodies that could have influenced the results of the study.
In order to examine the immune cells of each infant, the researchers collected and analyzed blood samples. The researchers, who did not know which babies had been exposed to massage and which hadn’t when analyzing the samples, found that the number of immune cells present did not vary significantly from one group to the other. However, the pathogen killing ability of the cells was stronger in the group that received massage.
The babies in the massage group also gained roughly one ounce per day. In comparison, babies in the no-massage group only gained about 0.9 ounces per day.
Less Stress, More Weight Gain
Existing premature baby massage studies with adult subject pools have already suggested that massage can improve the immune system, though the Michigan study was the first to look at how massage affects the immune system of a premature baby. Existing studies have also already suggested that massage can lead to benefits such as improved mental functioning, shorter hospitalization and faster weight gain in premature babies.
Dr. Vivian Hernandez-Trujillo described the findings as “exciting” and said that touch, whether it comes in the form of a gentle massage, cradling or virtually any other type of contact, is very important for babies in general. Hernandez-Trujillo, who was not directly involved in the study but serves as the director of Miami Children’s Hospital’s allergy and immunology division, said that the stress levels in the NICU can be overwhelming for prematurely born infants, and that anything that could lower this stress level would be beneficial.
Dr. Jocelyn Ang, a pediatrics professor who helped lead the Michigan study, said that previous research indicates that stress may suppress the capability of immune cells. Although it’s unclear how massage may benefit immune cells directly, it’s possible that it’s simply due to a reduction in stress. It’s also possible that massage improves hormonal balance to allow for better absorption of nutrition, which would explain why the premature babies who received gentle massage gained more weight.
Limitations of the Study
The overall findings of the study are clear: massage is safe for babies, and may play an important role in improving their health. At the same time, newborn babies — particularly those born prematurely — are very fragile and vulnerable. Parents and pediatricians alike would need to be very careful not apply too much pressure during the massage. For this reason and for others, it’s too early to determine that doctors should begin prescribing gentle massage to preemies.
One reason is that even though the functionality of immune system cells seems to improve after massage, there’s no way of knowing whether this improvement will actually lead to better health. Unfortunately, the babies who received gentle massage experienced just as many infections as the babies in the no-massage group. Further, all the babies required roughly the same length of hospitalization regardless of whether they were massaged.
In the future, it’s likely that a larger study will be conducted in order to either confirm or deny the results.
The Bottom Line
Premature babies may benefit greatly from gentle massage, both in terms of gaining weight and developing a stronger immune system, according to a new study conducted at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. The full text of the study is available online in the medical journal Pediatrics.