Baby massage and premature babies

Baby massage and premature babies

Baby Massage is beneficial for all babies but studies and research have shown that premature babies can gain particularly great benefits from touch and tactile stimulation and it can help support their development. Early touch communicates security, love and trust and helps to mother & baby become attuned to each other.

“Emotional intelligence begins with the wiring of the approach pathway, which comes from feeling safe in skin-to-skin contact. The eye-to-eye contact, bonding, love and trust are the start of social intelligence. Together these form the basis for all other relationships. Right in these first minutes of life both emotional and social intelligence are being fired and wired into your baby’s brain”-Nils Bergham

What is the evidence that baby massage helps premature babies?

A groundbreaking and significant study on baby massage and premature babies was undertaken by Doctor Tiffany Field, the founder of the Touch Research Institute, which seeks to study the effects of positive touch and massage for individuals in society.

The study published in 1986 showed that;

Premature babies that received gentle touch gained 47% more weight than a comparative group;

Their development and sensory awareness was enhancing enabling them to leave a medical setting 6 days earlier than a comparative group;

Further study of the babies who had received massage shown that eight months after birth they had increased motor and cognitive development.

Massage releases feel good hormones into the body, which increase appetite and enable restful sleep and relaxation. Massage helps to counteract stress and anxiety.

Nils Bergham has done much research on the importance of skin to skin contact after birth and the need for a mother and baby to be kept physically close;

When babies are held naked against their mother’s skin, it is the closest they can get to being back in the warmth and security of the womb. It is the only place in which newborns have survived for the last million years, and developed toward optimal health. It is in our DNA to crave skin contact. Skin contact after birth supports the maturation of the nervous system as we continue to provide sensations and stimulus into the brain which is familiar to the baby from the womb. This allows a sense of continuing their journey from the safe environment of the womb into the world and makes adjustments easier.

Considerations and precautions for baby massage with premature babies

Baby massage is gentle and safe to use with all babies but we can modify the massage routine slightly to support the development of premature babies. Below are a few issues to consider;

You may like to try massage whilst holding baby in your arms rather than lying baby down. This may make him feel more relaxed. Put your baby into a cradled and well support position. You can use a blanket to create a “nest”. A boundary around your baby’s body will make him/her feel more secure.

Premature babies commonly suffer from tummy pains and windy problems, as the digestive tract may be immature. Tummy massage can really help to reduce pain and colic. You can stroke your baby’s belly over clothes. Remember to make your strokes small as the area you are working on is compact. Start just by holding your hand across baby’s tummy to help bring comfort and to gauge his/her reaction. Once he is comfortable you can move on to gentle clockwise tummy massage strokes. Keep checking in with your baby throughout to asses any stress cues or whether your baby is feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated. It’s always better to introduce massage slowly and build up sensation and time.

You may find your baby may be sensitive to touch so make sessions shorter and always start slowly on a non-intrusive area such as the hands or legs/feet. Make sure your strokes are gentle. When you are ready you are both ready, you can move on to other areas. Be cautious around working on the feet as some babies may have sensitivity around this area due to heel prick tests.

Always try to talk to, and make eye contact with, your baby during massage, making sure he is still happy to continue. Keep checking in to asses his/her cues.

Baby massage also enhances the bonding process between mother and baby and can help you feel more connected to your baby particularly if the birth was traumatic, unexpected and there have been complication after the birth. You can also practise kangaroo mothercare and skin to skin to help relax your baby and reassure him/her.

When massaging your baby’s feet, be aware of their body language and reaction. Some premature baby’s have sensitive feet, due to heel prick tests or memories of invasive procedures in hospital. Never massage over unhealed scars or an unhealed navel.

If you baby has any chronic health issues, always consult your medical professional before massage and in addition insure that your baby is health, well and happy before massage having no signs of fever, sickness, diarrhoea or rashes etc. Be careful if your baby has had any recent surgery or procedures.

If your baby is very sensitive, try containment holds such as kangaroo care where you place baby close to your chest and hold them. Babies are often relaxed by the sound of the heartbeat, the warmth of the body and the security of your arms. Practice this until you feel you baby is ready to progress to massage. Skin to skin and gentle stroking is a great way to introduce massage. When your baby is older, (from 4 weeks) you can begin to practice a slightly longer massage session of 5-10 minutes. Build up the massage time and routine slowly.

Premature babies can have sensitive skins so avoid any chemically enhanced products and use an 100% organic vegetable oil on he skin. Oil massage is not recommended on the skin until 4 months. In hospital settings where research on baby massage has taken place, coconut oil and safflower oil has been used and shown to have beneficial effects but recent studies now suggest that oil on the skin may cause damage to the skin. The situation needs further investigation. Skin to skin and gentle stroking without oil is appropriate from birth.

Make sure you baby is warm enough. Try massage over clothes or keep baby wrapped in a blanket and uncover only the part you are working on. You may find our Baby Massage Body Suit useful to help you learn massage strokes without having to remove baby’s clothes.

Kangaroo Care

Kangaroo care was originally developed in 1978 as a desperate move to save premature babies in resource-poor hospitals that lacked enough incubators. It began in Columbia and soon spread across the world as a beneficial practice for premature and newborn babies. It is now governed by the Kangaroo Foundation in Columbia. It has influenced the growth in interest in touch and massage for premature babies and new borns.

Skin contact and touch is part of Unicef’s Baby Friendly Initiative and this video helps to show why skin contact is so important.


Scroll to Top