Massage therapy appears to deliver beneficial effects for premature babies being cared for in newborn intensive care units, say researchers in the journal Early Human Development.
The researchers say preemies have an immature autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls stress response and recovery. For a preemie, even a diaper change is stressful and the immature ANS over reacts to these, and other, stressors.
The researchers believe that massage therapy may reduce stress in preterm infants by promoting ANS development. University of Louisville researcher Sandra Smith said massage therapy that involved moderate pressure and stroking of the soft tissues increased heart rate variability (HRV) in male, but not in female preterm infants.
HRV is a measure of ANS function and development. Infants who are born at term gestation demonstrate increased HRV, but preemies typically show decreased HRV and an inability to appropriately respond to stressors. Massaged male preterm infants demonstrated increased HRV similar to term infants, which supports their ability to correctly respond to stressors. Unfortunately, female preterm infants that received massage did not display the same HRV improvements.
"We were surprised to learn the differences in the impact of massage therapy on preterm boys and girls," Smith said. "Boys who received massage therapy demonstrated increased heart rate variability, but the therapy did not seem to affect HRV in girls - perhaps there are hormonal reasons for this difference."
Smith said future research is needed with a larger sample of preterm infants to understand how massage therapy promotes ANS function and what might cause the gender differences the researchers identified.
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Source: University of Louisville