Touch Therapy for Premature Neonates in the NICU: Research and Benefits

February 11, 2023

Preterm birth is a significant health concern globally. Infants born prematurely face several health and developmental challenges and require specialized care, often spending time in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).

Care of neonates in the NICU can be a challenging and stressful experience, both for the infants and their families. In recent years, research has continued to uncover the benefits of touch therapy, including infant massage, for premature neonates in the NICU.

This article will review some of the recent research and benefits of infant massage and touch therapy for neonates.

A recent 2023 study found that increased vagal activity during massage stimulation can increase melatonin levels. Melatonin is important for neonates and premature infants because it helps to regulate their sleep-wake cycles, promotes better physiological stability, and has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects. In premature infants, the release of melatonin is often disrupted, leading to disturbances in sleep patterns and the regulation of physiological processes.

One study published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies in 2017 found that premature neonates who received regular touch therapy, including infant massage, had improved neurobehavioral outcomes, including increased alertness, better self-regulation, and improved sleep patterns. The authors of the study suggest that these benefits may be due to the stimulation of nerve receptors in the skin, leading to enhanced brain development and function.

Another study published in the Journal of Traditional Medical Complementary Therapies in 2019 found that infant massage was associated with improved weight gain and a reduction in the duration of hospital stay for premature neonates. The study’s authors note that infant massage may help to improve digestive function, reduce stress, and improve overall growth and development.

In addition to the benefits for neonates, touch therapy, including infant massage, has been found to have positive effects on parent-infant bonding. A study published in BMC Pediatrics in 2016 found that mothers who participated in an infant massage program reported increased feelings of bonding and competence, as well as reduced levels of stress and anxiety.

It is important to note that not all touch therapy programs are created equal and proper training is crucial for massage therapists, healthcare providers, and NICU staff to ensure the safety and well-being of the neonates.

In conclusion, recent research has continued to demonstrate the benefits of touch therapy, including infant massage, for neonates in the NICU. Regular touch therapy has been found to improve neurobehavioral outcomes, weight gain, parent-infant bonding, and well-being for NICU staff.

Further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms by which touch therapy improves outcomes for premature neonates, but the available evidence suggests that it is an essential component of care in the NICU.