Expectant mothers planning for the arrival of their newborns may contemplate writing a birth plan, doing research on essential decisions regarding breastfeeding, circumcision, vaccines, etc. More and more women today are also beginning to consider the significant health benefits of incorporating massage therapy to their newborn’s care and life beyond. Midwives, nurses, and other healthcare providers have a unique opportunity to administer and teach massage therapy while caring for infants and mothers during the postnatal period and when providing pediatric care. The ancient practice of massage therapy has been utilized in the world over. Recent gains and increasing attention in the west as new studies have revealed its numerous health benefits; perhaps most widely documented regarding preterm infants.
Infant massage stimulates the development of the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, states, “When you give your baby a massage, you’re stimulating the central nervous system. That sets off a chain reaction: It makes her brain produce more serotonin, a feel-good chemical, and less cortisol, a hormone that’s secreted in response to stress. As a result, your baby’s heart rate and breathing slow down, and she becomes more relaxed.” In preterm infants, the Autonomic Nervous System, which is responsible for managing stress responses, is immature. Recently the University of Louisville School of Nursing published a study in Early Human Development showing that massage therapy does improve premature infants’ responses to stressors in the Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU).
As if that weren’t enough information to encourage healthcare providers to assimilate massage therapy into their practice, there are many other reasons as well! The digestive system, circulatory system, respiratory system, and immune system are all enhanced as a result of massage therapy. Common symptoms of colic, such as prolonged crying and gas, can be reduced or relieved by simple massage techniques. “Affectionate touch and rhythmic movement are among the most powerful forms of communication between babies and their parents, so they’re great ways to bond,” says K. Mark Sossin, Ph.D., director of the Parent-Infant Research Nursery at Pace University, in New York City. Furthermore, premature infants who are at risk of developing infection and respiratory difficulties receive an advantage from massage. Literally all infants can and should benefit from massage!
Beyond infancy, massage has the potential to be a critical therapeutic component in pediatric care for patients with conditions such as Autism, Cancer, Cystic Fibrosis, and Cerebral Palsy. Autistic characteristics, including an aversion to touch, decrease with a massage. And in response to therapeutic massage, pediatric cancer patients report less stress, anxiety, and depression associated with their disease and subsequent treatments or procedures. Less pain and better ease of breathing are noted by patients with cystic fibrosis receiving massage therapy. Children with Cerebral Palsy gain range of motion and experience less muscle tension after a massage. Hence, it is clear to see the importance of implementing massage therapy in pediatric medical practice and likewise, in neonatal care. Therefore, healthcare workers are optimally positioned to assist in supporting this crucial wellness movement.