This review on newborn massage therapy research is based on literature searches of Pubmed, Medline and PsychInfo for studies published
during the last six years to update a similar review published in 2010. In that review, massage therapy was noted to lead to greater
weight gain and growth in preterm newborns who had received moderate pressure massage. The weight gain was thought to relate to
increased vagal activity, gastric motility, insulin and IGF –1 levels resulting from the stimulation of pressure receptors during massage.
The current review includes randomized controlled trial studies, systematic reviews and meta-analyses on the effects of massage therapy
on both preterm and full – term newborns. Immediate effects have been noted for massage therapy during painful procedures such as
the heelstick for preterm newborns and vaccinations for full-term newborns. Although most of the studies have focused on the effects
of different oils used in massage therapy to enhance weight gain in preterm newborns, other conditions that have benefited from massage
therapy include hyperbilirubinemia, feeding intolerance and brain injury. Mothers of preterm newborns have also experienced less
depression, stress and anxiety after massaging their infants. Although very few studies have been conducted with full-term newborns,
this review includes research on the effects of massage therapy on sleep patterns in full term newborns and their mothers, on hyperbilirubinemia,
pain, colic, cortisol and HIV. Despite the methodological limitations noted for some of these studies including small sample
sizes and the need for more randomized controlled trials on a standard moderate pressure massage protocol, the data converge to suggest
that newborns benefit both physically and developmentally from being massaged by their mothers during the newborn period and their
mothers also benefit when they are providing their newborns massage.
Newborn massage therapy research has been the focus of a
growing literature over the last few years. This review is primarily
based on literature searches of Pubmed, Medline and PsychInfo
for studies published during the last six years to update a similar
review published in 2010 (Field, Diego, & Hernandez-Reif,
2010). In that review massage therapy was noted to lead to greater
weight gain and growth in preterm newborns who had received
moderate pressure massage. The weight gain was associated with
shorter hospital stays and was thought to relate to increased vagal
activity, gastric motility, insulin and IGF –1 levels following the
stimulation of pressure receptors during the massage. The current
review includes randomized controlled trial studies, systematic
reviews and meta-analyses on the effects of massage therapy on
both preterm and full – term newborns. Immediate effects have been
noted when massage therapy was used during painful procedures
such as the heelstick for preterm newborns or vaccinations for fullterm
newborns. Most of the studies have focused on weight gain
in preterm newborns including research documenting the effects
of different oils used in massage therapy. Other conditions that
have benefited from massage therapy include hyperbilirubinemia,
feeding intolerance and brain injury. Mothers of preterm newborns
have also experienced less depression, stress and anxiety after
massaging their newborns. Although very few massage therapy
studies have been conducted with full-term newborns, this review
includes studies on the effects of massage therapy on sleep patterns
in full term newborns and their mothers, on hyperbilirubinemia,
pain, colic, cortisol and HIV. Because the conditions targeted for
the massages have differed across preterm and full-term infants,
they are reviewed separately.
Preterm newborn massage therapy effects (see table 1 for
Most of the studies on preterm massage therapy have focused
on weight gain and the potential underlying mechanisms for the massage/weight gain relationship. More recent research
has explored its effects on pain reduction, on different oils and
different pressure massages. These data are briefly reviewed here.
In addition, studies on other conditions associated with prematurity
including feeding intolerance and jaundice are summarized.
Finally, because parents of preterm infants are recently being
taught newborn massage, the positive effects on those parents are
Pain reduction. Newborn massage has frequently been used during
heelsticks and other painful procedures in the neonatal intensive
care unit (NICU). An example of this was a study in which preterm
neonates were massaged by their mothers during their stay in the
NICU (Abdallah, Badr & Hawwari, 2013). The massaged versus
the control newborns had lower scores on the pain scale after a
heelstick. At a one year follow-up assessment, they also had higher
cognitive scores. Although this finding is consistent with an earlier
finding on massaged preterm infants having better cognitive
development at eight months (Field , Scafidi & Schanberg, 1987),
the long-term effects may have also been mediated by the mothers
continuing to massage their infants at home (Field et al, 2010).
Oil massage and growth gains. Dozens of studies from the past
few decades have confirmed the effects of massage therapy on
growth in preterm newborns. These studies have continued to
show weight gain effects with different oils and by different
therapists (researchers, massage therapists, nurses, mothers).
In a quasi-experimental study from Pakistan, nurses gave 258
preterm neonates coconut oil massages twice daily that were then
continued by their mothers at home for the first month of life
(Salam, Darmstadt, & Bhutta, 2015). Data collected by a researcher
who was “blind to group assignment” suggested that the mean
weight gain was 11.3 grams greater for the massaged newborns as
compared to the control group. In addition, the “hazard for hospital
– acquired infection” for the control group was six times that of the
massage group. The average skin condition was also significantly
better for the massaged newborns. Thus, the coconut oil massage
therapy reduced the risk of bloodstream infection of the preterm
newborns. Methdologically, this would have been a better study
with the addition of a no-oil massage control group.
In a single-blind, randomized controlled, clinical trial, preterm
newborns were given olive oil massages by their mothers for 15
minutes three times a day for 10 days (Jabraeile, Rasooly, Farshi,
& Malacouti, 2016). The average neonatal weight gain for the
massaged newborns was 21 grams daily versus an increase of 7
grams daily for the group who received newborn massage without
oil. This is not surprising as earlier data had established greater
vagal activity in newborns receiving massage with oil versus
without oil (Field, Schanberg, Davalos, & Malphurs, 1996). The
greater vagal activity would be expected to lead to greater gastric
motility and weight gain as it did in at least two other studies
(Diego, Field, 2005; Diego, Field, & Hernandez-Reif, 2014).
Higher cortisol levels were also noted in the non-oil massage group
in the Field et al, (1996) study which would suggest discomfort
possibly related to the greater friction in massages without oil.
In another single-blind, randomized clinical trial (from Iran)
medium – chain triglyceride oil massage was used as a
supplementary nutritional method (Saeadi, Ghorbani, & ShapouriMoghaddam,
2015). In this study, 121 stable preterm newborns
were randomly assigned to three groups, an oil – massage group,
a non-oil massage group and a non-massage control group. The
groups were equivalent on gender, gestational age, birth weight,
head circumference, delivery and feeding type. On the seventh day
of the study, the oil massage group had a mean weight gain of 105
grams as opposed to 52 grams for the non-oil massage group and
a weight loss of 54 grams for the control group. The authors also
noted no incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis (one of the most
common infections for preterm neonates) in the massage groups.
Tactile-kinesthetic stimulation. In a systematic review of the
preterm newborn massage literature from two databases, PEDro
and Pubmed, 520 titles were found and, of these, 31 met inclusion
criteria (Pepino, & Mezzacappa, 2015). In the more recent studies
included in that review, the preterm newborns who received tactilekinesthetic
stimulation (the earlier term for the Field et al 1986
moderate pressure massage protocol) showed : 1) greater weight
gain (Kumar, Upadhyay, Dwivedi, Gothwal, Jaiswal, et al, 2013;
Massaro, Hammad, Jazzo, & Ally, 2009); 2) both greater weight
gain and shorter hospitalization (Gonzalez, Vasquez-Mendoza,
Garcia-vela, Guzman-Ramirez, Salazar-Torres, et al, 2009);3)
increased skinfold thickness (Moyeur-Mileur, Haley, Slater,
Beachy, & Smith, 2013);4)increased weight gain and natural killer
cell activity (Ang, Lua, Mathur, Thomas, Asmar, et al, 2012);5)
greater weight gain and better motor development scores (Fucile
& Gisel, 2010); and 6)better mental development at a two-year
follow-up assessment (Procianoy, Mendes, & Silveira, 2010).
Despite these significant gains for those given massage therapy
(tactile/kinesthetic stimulation), a number of methodological
limitations were noted including the small sample sizes and lack
of a standard application of the massage therapy.
Moderate pressure massage therapy effects. Three recently
published meta-analyses have documented the positive effects
of newborn massage on different growth measures. In one
of these meta-analyses, several databases were searched for
preterm newborn massage studies including MEDLINE, Embase,
CINAHL, Dissertation Abstracts and the Cochrane Library (Wang,
HE, & Zhang, 2013). Although 611 articles were retrieved, only
17 studies were eligible. Collectively they showed a greater daily
weight gain averaging 5.3 grams and a reduced length of stay by
4.4days. A similar meta-analysis was conducted using MEDLINE,
PubMed, Ovid, the Cochrane library and Chinese databases (Li,
Zhong, & Tang, 2016). Of 625 articles retrieved, only eight studies
were eligible for inclusion. Their summary suggested that not
only had preterm newborn massage increased weight gain but also
length and head circumference.
In another meta-analysis, 34 studies met inclusion criteria
including three quasi – experimental studies, one pilot randomized
controlled study, and the remaining 30 were randomized controlled
trials (Badr, Abdallah, & Kahale, 2015). These included studies from the U.S. (N=15), South America (N=5), Europe (N=2), India
(N=5), the Middle East (N=6) and Hong Kong. (N=1). Most of
the studies (N=25) used the moderate pressure massage protocol
described by Field et al (1986). Moderate pressure massage
has been essential for the positive effects of massage (Diego, et
al, 2005; Field, Diego & Hernandez-Reif, 2010a) which is not
surprising given that massage as an Arabic word means to squeeze
and as a Greek word means to knead. In the more recent studies
of this meta-analysis, the average weight gain was 19.9 grams per
day as opposed to 15.7 mean weight gain per day for the control
group, and the length of hospital stay averaged 27.2 days for the
massage therapy group newborns as opposed to 31.1 days in the
NICU for the control group newborns (Ferreira & Bergamasco,
2010; Fucile et al, 2012 Gonzalez et al, 2011; Ho et al, 2012). The
average daily weight gain was greater in this meta-analysis likely
because moderate pressure massage was used in these studies. This
research highlights the positive effects of the moderate pressure
massage protocol on preterm newborn weight gain and shorter
hospital stay and the need for its adoption in NICUs.
The moderate pressure is thought to stimulate pressure receptors
under the skin that, in turn, leads to enhanced vagal activity and
gastric motility and increased insulin and growth hormone (IGF-
1) (Field et al, 2010). Another demonstration of this underlying
mechanism involved a comparison between moderate pressure
massage and exercise (repeatedly moving each limb into flexion
and extension) (Diego, Field & Hernandez-Reif, 2014). In this
study, vagal activity was the mediator for weight gain following
massage while formula intake was the mediator for the weight gain
of the exercised newborns, suggesting two different underlying
mechanisms for the two different types of stimulation.
Other conditions associated with prematurity. Other conditions
associated with prematurity that were found in the recent literature
on preterm newborn massage include feeding intolerance, jaundice
(hyperbilirubinemia) and brain injury. In a quasi-experimental
design study on the prevention of feeding intolerance in preterm
newborns, abdominal massage was applied to the newborns for
15 minutes twice daily just before feedings for a five day study
period (Tekgunduz, Gurol, Apay, & Caner, 2014). By the last day
of the study the massage therapy group versus the control group
showed greater daily weight gain, less frequent vomiting, less
gastric residual volume and lower abdominal circumference (less
abdominal distension). This study has clinical implications for
preventing feeding intolerance in preterm newborns, although it
was unfortunately not a randomized controlled trial.
In a randomized controlled trial on neonatal jaundice
(hyperbilirubinemia) in preterm newborns, the massage group was
compared to a routine therapy group in Iran (Basiri-Moghadam,
Basiri-Moghadam, Kianmehr, & Jani, 2015). The massage group
received four days of routine therapy plus 20 minute massages twice
per day for four days. By the end of the study, the massage group
had a greater number of stools and lower levels of transcutaneous
Preterm newborns with brain injury have also benefited from
massage. In a study from China, 210 preterm newborns with
brain injury were assigned to a massage group or a control group
(Hu, Wei, Du, Li, Qui, et al, 2014). Both groups received routine
therapy while the intervention group also received accupoint
massage (moderate pressure massage) for the duration of their stay
in the neonatal intensive care unit. At a corrected age of six and
12 months, the massage group as compared to the routine therapy
control group had a significantly higher developmental quotient
on gross motor, fine motor, and language scales. At the twelvemonth
period quotients were also higher for social and adaptive
functions. Further, the massage group had one third the incidence
of cerebral palsy as compared to the control group. Unfortunately,
this study was also limited by its lack of random assignment to
groups, and the group differences on cerebral palsy were likely
present at baseline, thus confounding the results.
Mothers also benefit from massaging their preterm newborns. In
at least two recent studies mothers who massaged their preterm
newborns were noted to have less psychological distress. In a
very brief quasi-experimental clinical trial, 70 mothers and their
preterm newborns who were scheduled to be discharged from
the NICU within 24 hours were assigned to an infant massage or
control group (Afand et al, 2016). The massage group preterm
newborns received eight minutes of massage from their mothers
on the morning before discharge and on the day of discharge
while the control group received no intervention. On the day of
discharge the mean score on the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory
score was significantly lower for the massage than the control
group. Unfortunately this was not a randomized controlled trial
and it was also limited to one measure.
In contrast, many measures were taken to assess the differential
effects of massage and kangaroo care including questionnaires
on depressive symptoms, state anxiety, posttraumatic stress
symptoms, parenting stress, HOME scores (a measure of
stimulation in the home) and 45 – minute videotaped motherinfant
interactions taken at their homes (Holditch-Davis, WhiteTraut,
Levy, O’Shea, Geraldo, et al, 2014). In this study, 240
mothers from four different hospitals were randomly assigned to
a massage, a kangaroo care or a control group. The questionnaires
were completed during hospitalization and at two, six and 12
months corrected age. The mothers of the massage group reported
a more rapid decline in depressive symptoms and higher HOME
scores. Although the massage group mothers experienced a more
rapid decrease in depressive symptoms and were able to provide a
better environment for their newborns, the massage was comprised
of several types of stimulation including auditory, tactile, visual
and vestibular stimulation, making it difficult to know which
aspect of the massage was most effective.
Summary. In summary, preterm newborns have significantly
benefited from massage during their NICU stay. In virtually every
study weight gain was significantly greater for the massaged
newborns. In at least one study, the newborns’ length and head
circumference were also greater following massage. In several
studies, the hospital stay was also shorter as a result of the greater
weight gain which is not surprising as weight gain is usually
the criterion for discharge. In addition, feeding intolerance was prevented in one study and hyperbilirubinemia was reduced in
another study. In still others, hospital infections were reduced,
possibly because, in at least one study, natural killer cell activity
was notably greater and natural killer cells ward off bacterial and
viral cells. In follow-up assessments, motor, mental and language
scores were greater for those infants receiving massage. In
research that compared massages delivered by oil versus no oil,
the oil massages had more positive effects whether it was coconut
oil, olive oil or triglyceride oil. The lubricious quality of oil would
reduce friction, making the massage more comfortable and the
absorption of these oils could also add to weight gain. In most
of the research, moderate pressure massage was applied which
has been noted to increase vagal activity. In several of the studies
the massages were given by the newborns’ mothers which was
not common until recently. In research comparing the effects of
mothers massaging their infants versus not massaging their infants,
even short-lived interventions led to less anxiety in the mothers as
well as a more rapid decrease in depressive symptoms and better
home environment scores. The benefits for both the mothers and
their preterm newborns highlight the cost-effectiveness of this
mode of delivering preterm newborn massages. Although a few
of these studies had the limitation of being quasi-– experimental ,
most were randomized controlled trials with significant effects at
least on weight gain and shorter hospital stays that, in turn,were
supported by systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
Full-term newborn massage therapy effects (see table 2
Very few massage therapy studies have been conducted on fullterm
newborns, perhaps because full-term newborns are in the
newborn nursery for a very short time and possibly because
newborn massage researchers have focused on massage therapy
for the growth of preterm newborns (see Field, 2014 for a review).
The full-term newborn massage therapy studies that were found in
the recent literature were focused on reducing jaundice, decreasing
pain during vaccinations, enhancing sleep, facilitating early
growth and development, reducing colic and reflux, and enhancing
development in HIV infants. In addition, benefits were shown for
mothers massaging their newborns including facilitating maternal
attachment and mother-infant interactions, and decreasing sleep
problems and postpartum depression.
Jaundice (hyperbilirubinemia). Jaundice reputedly affects over
50% of full term newborns (Chen, Sadakata, Ishida, Sekizuka,
& Sayama, 2011). In this Japanese study, 44 breast-fed newborns
who did not require phototherapy were semi-randomly assigned
to massage and control groups. The massage group received
massage twice daily (one hour after the morning and midday
feedings) for five days. “Specialized clinical staff”, trained by a
licensed massage therapist, provided the 15 – 20 minute moderate
pressure massages. Massage with oil was applied to the face,
chest, abdomen, limbs and back. By the second day of the study,
the massaged versus the control newborns had a greater stool
frequency. By the fourth day of the study, the massaged versus the
control newborns had lower bilirubin levels. As the authors noted,
the lower bilirubin in the treatment newborns could relate to the
greater frequency of stool stimulated by the massage. Others have
reported that frequent bowel movements lead to reduced bilirubin
(Semmekrot, de Vries, Gerrits, van Wieringen, 2004). The more
frequent stools may relate to increased vagal activity and gastric
motility following massage (Diego et al, 2005).
In a more recent study from Iran, mothers were taught the same
moderate pressure massage by a midwife (Dalili, Sheiki, Shariat,
& Haghnazarian, 2016). Their newborns received 15 minute
massages twice per day for four days, and transcutaneous bilirubin
was measured by a Bilitest on the forehead. By the fourth day of
the study, the bilirubin levels were lower for the massaged versus
the control newborns.
Unlike the previous two prevention studies that involved non—
jaundiced newborns, another research group from Taiwan
assessed the massage effects on 56 already – jaundiced newborns
(bilirubin>15 mg/dl) undergoing phototherapy (Lin, Yang, Cheng,
& Yen, 2015). The jaundiced newborns were randomly assigned
to a phototherapy plus massage group or to a phototherapy control
group. The 15 minute massages were given twice daily between
meals for three days starting on the first day of phototherapy.
After applying sweet almond oil, the legs, feet, abdomen, hands
and back were massaged. By the third day of the study, the stool
frequency was greater and the bilirubin levels were lower in the
massage versus the control group. The massage therapy also led
to shorter phototherapy treatment and earlier discharge. These
authors used the Diego, et al (2005) results to interpret their own
findings, suggesting that massage therapy would increase vagal
activity that would, in turn, lead to greater gastric motility and the
negative relationship between stooling and bilirubin levels.
In these three studies, the potential underlying variables including
vagal activity and gastric motility as well as the more easily
recorded variables including duration of phototherapy and days
to discharge could have been measured. Given that the same
results were achieved by mothers and professionals massaging
the newborns, future studies might use the more cost-effective
massages by mothers
Pain during vaccinations. Just as massage has been used to reduce
pain during the heelstick procedure with premies, it has been used
with full-term infants to reduce pain during vaccinations. In a
randomized controlled trial in Turkey, 60 infants were given foot
massage (reflexology) 20-30 minutes before vaccinations (Koc
& Gozen, 2015). The Face, Legs, Activity, Cry, Consolability
(FLACC) Pain Assessment Scale was used to evaluate pain, and
heart rate, oxygen saturation levels and crying time were compared
for the foot massage and the control infants. In the post-vaccination
assessment, the massaged infants’ FLACC scores were half those
of the control infants. And, they also had shorter crying periods,
lower heart rates and higher oxygen saturation levels.
Circadian rhythms and sleep. Lengthening nighttime sleep and
reducing nightwakings are among the most difficult tasks for parents and newborns over the first month of life (Field, 2014).
A research team from Israel studied the effects of mothers
massaging their newborns on the newborns’ circadian rhythms
(Ferber, Laudon, Kuint, Weller, & Zisapel, 2002).Starting at 10
days of age 26 newborns were randomly assigned to a massage
or control group. The mothers massaged their newborns for 30
minutes per day using the Field et al (1986) moderate pressure
massage protocol. The newborns’ activity cycles were measured
by actigraphy and their urine melatonin levels were assayed. These
assessments were made at the beginning and the end of the 14
day period and again at six, eight and twelve weeks of age. At
eight weeks, the massage group showed a major peak early in
the morning (3 AM to 7 AM) and a secondary peak in the late
afternoon (3 PM to 7 PM), suggesting more organized sleep than
the control group whose major peak activity was the middle of the
Also in this study, the massaged newborns’ melatonin levels were
higher than those of the control group (Ferber et al, 2002). And,
melatonin was inversely related to REM (eye movement) sleep,
suggesting that the newborns with higher melatonin were getting
less REM sleep and more deep/restorative sleep. The authors
concluded that massage therapy had enhanced the adjustment of the
sleep rhythm to the nighttime period. The underlying mechanism
is unclear, although one possibility is that increased vagal activity
following massage may have led to the increased melatonin. This
study needs to be replicated on a larger sample as only 16 of the 26
newborns had complete data. Further, the demands on the mothers
for the multiple sampling may not be necessary inasmuch as the
results were significant as early as 8 weeks. These data highlight
the importance of teaching mothers newborn massage during the
In another sleep study on full-term newborns, 76 mothers of
newborns were randomly assigned to a lotion massage versus a
non-lotion massage group and a non-massage control group (Field,
Gonzalez, Diego & Mindell, 2016). Researchers taught the mothers
a simple newborn massage and the mothers were asked to massage
their newborns daily for 15 minutes at bedtime for four weeks. The
Brief Infant Sleep Questionnaire was adapted to be appropriate for
newborns as well as for mothers, and the mothers completed the
questionnaires on their newborns’ and their own sleep behaviors
(the same behaviors for both mothers and newborns). Group
comparisons on the changes in sleep behaviors across the onemonth
period suggested that the mothers of the lotion massage
group versus the other two groups had a shorter latency to sleep
and longer sleep and their newborns had fewer nightwakings
and longer sleep. This may relate to the lotion application being
more comfortable for the mothers and infants. This may have
contributed to the lotion group mothers massaging their newborns
more frequently. In turn, the number of massages was positively
correlated with the total time sleeping and negatively correlated
with nightwakings at one month for both the mothers and the
newborns. And, the mothers’ and their newborns’ sleep behaviors
were positively correlated. The more positive effects of lotion
massage are similar to those noted earlier for oil massage (Field
et al, 1996). These findings of the lotion massage study, however, are limited to self-report by mothers and need to be replicated with
more objective measures such as actigraphy.
Newborn growth and development. Several aspects of growth
and development have been facilitated by mothers massaging
their newborns in at least one study (Field, Hernandez-Reif,
Diego, Feijo, Vera, et al, 2004). In this study, 96 newborns were
randomly assigned to a moderate pressure massage group or to
a control group that received sham massage (light pressure). The
mothers were taught the Field et al (1986) massage protocol and
were shown how to move the skin for the moderate pressure group
and to lightly stroke the skin for the light pressure control group.
The mothers were asked to massage their newborns for 15 minutes
per day before nighttime sleep for one month. Compliance was
assessed both by having the mothers record their massages on
a calendar and by observing the smoothness of the massage by
the mothers at the one month follow-up period. The assessments
conducted at the newborn nursery and again at the end of the
newborn period (one month) included growth measures (weight,
length and head circumference), the Brazelton Neonatal Behavior
Assessment Scale (Brazelton, 1973) and sleep – wake behavior
(45 minute observations). At one month the moderate pressure
versus the sham massage newborns were greater weight and
length. They also showed superior performance on the Brazelton
orientation items (following the examiner’s face and turning in
the direction of her voice) and the excitability and depression
items, suggesting that those newborns were less excitable and
showed less depressed/more alert/attentive behavior. The sleep
observations suggested less REM (eye movement) sleep which
was consistent with the Ferber et al (2002) data. In addition, the
infants showed less agitated behavior, less fussing/crying and less
gross body movement, again suggesting more organized sleep on
the part of the newborns who received moderate pressure massage.
The authors speculated that the enhanced growth resulted from
the moderate pressure massage stimulating pressure receptors that
then resulted in increased vagal activity, gastric motility and the
release of growth hormone (IGF-1) as they had found in studies
on preterm newborns (Diego at al, 2005; Field, Diego, HernandezReif,
Dieter, Kumar et al, 2008).A future study might assess those
variables (vagal activity, gastric motility and growth hormone) in
a full-term newborn massage study. And the control group would
need to be a simple hands -on -the –newborn therapy as the sham
massage (light stroking) appears to be arousing rather than calming
Infant colic. As the authors of an infantile colic study suggested,
infantile colic, crying, fussing and sleep problems are among
the most common problems presented to clinicians in the first
months of life (Sheidaei, Abadi, Zayeri, Nahidi, Gazerani, et
al, 2016). In this single-blind randomized controlled trial, 100
infants were randomly assigned to a massage or a rocking group.
A methodological problem was that the massage group received
massages for 15-20 minutes once during the day and once during
the night for one week while the rocking group (the control
group) was rocked for 5-25 minutes whenever the infants had
colic symptoms which amounted to more rocking time. Despite the greater amount of physical contact in the control group, the
massage group showed significantly less crying, had a lower
severity of cry rating and engaged in longer sleep. These results,
however, are tenuous given the different amount of contact in the
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) . In this randomized
controlled trial, 36 infants with a diagnosis of GERD were
assigned to a massage or a non-massage control group (Neu, Pan,
Workman, Marcheggiani-Howard, Furuta, et al, 2014). Although
the massaged infants received 30 minute massages twice a week
for 6 weeks, they did not show a decrease in GERD symptoms.
They did, however, have lower cortisol levels than the control
group by the end of the study which might be expected to ultimately
lead to lower GERD symptoms. This was a pilot study that needs
to be replicated, and a longer duration treatment period may be
necessary to show a reduction in GERD symptoms.
HIV-exposed infants. This randomized controlled trial on 160
mother-infant pairs was conducted in a Prevention of Motherto-Infant
Child Transmission Program in South Africa (Perez,
Carrarra, Boume, Berg, Swanvelder, et al, 2015). The HIVinfected
mothers were taught the massage and asked to massage
their infants for 15 minutes daily. After adjusting for CD4 counts,
anemia, relationships with the mothers’ partners and mental pain
of the mothers, the infants of the massage versus the control
group had significantly higher scores on all five of the Griffiths
Scales of Mental Development and higher mean quotients on the
hearing and speech scale at 9 months. Surprisingly, there were no
differences on the growth measures as there have been in other
long-term studies. Only 5% of the infants were infected despite the
uniform exposure to their HIV-infected mothers which may relate
to the massage saving CD4 cells (typically attacked by the HIV
virus) as has happened in other HIV studies (Diego, HernandeReif,
Field, Friedman & Shaw, 2001). Another possibility is that
the massage increased natural killer cell activity, as it has with
preterm newborns (Ang et al, 2012), and natural killer cells, in
turn, warding off HIV cells.
Maternal attachment, interactions and depression. As was noted
for mothers massaging preterm newborns, mothers of full-term
newborns have also benefited from massaging their newborns in at
least two studies (Glover, Onozawa, & Hodgkinson, 2002; Gurol,
& Polat, 2012). In a study from Korea, 57 newborns were given a
15-minute massage by their mothers every day for 38-days, and the
mothers in the massage group were compared to a control group
of non-massaging mothers( N=60) on the Maternal Attachment
Inventory (Gurol & Polat, 2012). Although the two groups did not
differ on their Maternal Attachment Inventory scores on their first
day, the last day scores were higher for the massage group mothers.
Unfortunately, the groups were compared on only one variable,
and that variable was a highly subjective self – report measure
instead of an observation. The positive effects on the massaging
mothers’ perceptions of attachment could simply result from a
“social desirability effect” of the mothers answering questions in a
positive way to be viewed favorably by the researchers.
In another mothers massaging their newborns study from England,
25 newborns were randomly assigned to a massage class versus a
control group (Glover et al, 2002). The experimental group attended
five massage instruction classes between the ages of 4 to 8 weeks.
At eight weeks, the massage mothers had improved interaction
scores and lower depression scores. The authors interpreted the
mothers’ better interactions as resulting from the mothers’ extra
observation and greater understanding of their newborns’ cues.
However, the mothers’ reactions to their newborns’ cues were not
measured in this research but could be assessed in a future study.
Summary. These studies suggest, then, that full-term newborns
and their mothers can benefit from newborn massage. Following
4-5 days of massage, the newborns benefited by decreased risk
factors for neonatal jaundice including increased defecation and
decreased bilirubin levels. Following 14 days of massage, their
sleep was more organized including consolidation of nighttime
sleep and less REM sleep which was related to increased melatonin
levels. Following 30 days of massage, newborns slept longer and
had fewer nightwakings. In another study they had greater growth
(weight and length), better orientation and alertness and less
excitability on the Brazelton Neonatal Behavior Assessment Scale,
and less disturbed sleep patterns based on sleep observations. The
mothers who massaged their newborns also benefited, as suggested
by longer sleep and fewer nightwakings, improved interactions
and decreased depression.
Limitations noted for some of these studies included small sample
sizes, self-report measures and the need for more randomized
controlled trials. Finding a suitable control group is difficult now
that the benefits have been established for moderate pressure
massage. To deprive newborns of those benefits by being in
a control group could be considered unethical by internal
review boards evaluating human subjects concerns. Treatment
comparisons would be an acceptable alternative, for example,
comparing massage with the vestibular stimulation used by one
group (Holditch-Davis et al) or the exercising used by other groups
(Diego et al, 2014; Moyer-Mileur , Haley, Slater, Beachy & Smith,
2013) . The data reviewed here converge to suggest that newborns
benefit both physiologically and developmentally from receiving
moderate pressure massage from their mothers during the newborn
period, and their mothers benefit from providing their newborns
Limitations and future directions:
In the preterm massage literature, a sufficient number of randomized
controlled trials have been conducted with similar outcome
variables (e.g. weight gain and hospital stay) for meta-analyses
to be performed. However, only 3-6% of the 500 – 600 studies
identified in the literature searches met criteria. The reason most
typically given for studies not meeting criteria were that the trials
were only single – blind, i.e. the group assignment is not known
to the researchers making the assessments. Typically, the nursing
staff and parents would be aware of the group assignment as the
neonates were in incubators in open nurseries. Another reason
often given for not meeting criteria by meta-analysis researchers is
that standard deviations were missing from the tables of published
papers. And many of the papers are rejected as they are quasi experimental or quasi–random so that the treatment and control
groups were not comparable at baseline. Statistical techniques
were not used to control for this covariance, possibly because the
confounding variables were not identified.
Despite the power of meta-analyses, those data analyses are
limited to making conclusions regarding the variables common to
all studies. In the case of the preterm newborn massage literature
those variables are weight gain and hospital stay. The greater
weight gain and shorter hospital stay (the two dependent but also
interdependent variables) have not been sufficiently compelling
for the neonatal medical community to adopt massage into practice
to the extent, for example, that breast-feeding and kangaroo care
are practiced. It is not clear why these data are not sufficient for
neonatal intensive care units to adopt massage therapy. Some have
said that the neonatal staff are too busy to even teach the parents.
The breastfeeding and kangaroo care practices may have been
more easily taught to mothers and therefore more cost-effective.
Despite this limitation, in the time since the 2010 review (Field et
al, 2010), mothers are increasingly being taught massage, at least
for the research studies that were reviewed here. Still, the neonatal
medical community is looking for underlying mechanisms that
might contribute to weight gain, for example, the increase in gastric
motility (Diego et al , 2005) and enhanced immune function, i.e.
increased natural killer cell activity (Ang et al, 2012) especially
given that necrotizing enterocolitis is a serious condition. More
underlying mechanism studies like these are needed to adopt
preterm massage into practice.
A problem for full-term newborn massage researchers conducting
randomized controlled trials is finding a suitable control group.
The sham control (light pressure massage) can no longer be used
as it was noted to not only be less effective than the moderate
pressure (moving the skin) treatment group, but also to be aversive
to infants. A standard treatment–only control group would not be
ethical as it would be depriving infants of a therapy that at least
leads to greater weight gain and shorter hospital stay. And a waitlist
control group would not be suitable because the groups would
vary on days in the NICU which was the most significant predictor
variable in at least one study (Field et al , 1986).That variable
along with others like gender, gestational age and birth weight are
important random stratification variables in these studies. A simple
hands–on or holding the newborn may be a suitable control group,
or different dose massage therapy protocols may be compared for
their relative efficacy.
The full–term newborn massage therapy literature has many of the
same methodological problems as the preterm massage therapy
literature. In addition, it is a very limited literature, possibly
because of the very short hospital stay during which new mothers
are tired and have competing needs for breast-feeding and bathing
classes so that massage therapy is not a newborn nursery protocol
and is therefore not studied. And, possibly less funding has been
available for research on massaging healthy newborns. However,
the massage therapy for jaundice studies have been needed
inasmuch as over 50% of newborns experience hyperbilirubinemia,
and phototherapy may have side effects or at least the phototherapy
effects have been facilitated by massage therapy. Surprisingly, only
a few sleep studies and only one colic study have been published
recently. That is surprising given that sleep and irritability (colic)
are the most common problems presented to pediatricians by
parents of infants and that might be prevented by newborn
massage. Despite the limitations noted for some of these studies
including small sample size, self–report measures and the need for
more randomized controls, the data converge to suggest that both
preterm and full-term newborns benefit both physiologically and
developmentally from being massaged by their mothers during the
newborn period, and their mothers benefit when they are providing
the newborn massages.
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