Preemies' Immune Systems Get a Boost from Massage

A baby cuddles with a sibling.
(Image credit: Baby photo via Shutterstock)

Gently massaging premature babies may boost their immune system, a new study suggests.

The results show premature babies who were massaged had immune cells with increased killing ability compared to those who were not massaged.

In addition, babies who were massaged gained more weight daily, and weighed more at the end of the study period, regardless of how much they weighed when they were born. No negative side effects related to massaging were seen.

The findings suggest massage therapy is safe and may improve babies' overall health, the researchers said.

However, it's too soon to say that message is something doctors should prescribe to vulnerable newborns.

For one thing, the researchers aren't sure whether the effects seen on the immune system cells of babies who were massaged will translate to better health. While in theory, cells with increased killing ability would be better at warding off infections, babies who were massaged had about the same number of infections as those who were not massaged. In addition, both groups spent about the same amount of time in the hospital.

Larger studies are needed to better evaluate the health benefit of massage for preemies, said study researcher Dr. Jocelyn Ang, an associate professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Michigan.

Gentle massage

Previous studies have found a link between massage therapy on preemies and increased weight gain, reduced hospital stay, and improved mental abilities, but the effect of massage on preemies' immune systems has not been tested. Studies in adults suggest massages boost the immune system.

In the new study, 120 preemies staying in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) were randomly assigned to receive 45-minute massage therapy sessions five days a week for four weeks, or to receive no massage therapy. Specially trained nurses preformed the sessions, which consisted of gently stroking the baby with the hand, and flexing and extending the baby's arms and legs. The researchers who analyzed the study results did not known which babies were assigned to which group.

Babies were only included in the study if they were considered stable, meaning they did not need supplemental oxygen or antibiotics, and did not have a catheter called a central line placed in a vein in their neck. Newborns were not included if they had been fed breast milk, because breast milk contains immune system antibodies that could affect the study's results.

The researchers collected blood samples to examine the baby's natural killer cells, a type of immune system cell that kills pathogens.

Both groups had about the same number of natural killer cells in their blood samples. But the babies who were massaged had natural killer cells with increased killing ability, compared with those who were not massaged.

In addition, those who were massaged gained, on average, about an ounce per day, compared to 0.9 ounces in those who were not massaged.

Importance of touch

"I think its pretty exciting," said Dr. Vivian Hernandez-Trujillo, director of the allergy and immunology division at Miami Children's Hospital, who was not involved in the study. "The stress that is involved in the NICU setting is really tremendous," Hernandez-Trujillo said. "Anything that we can do to make it better for these babies is important," she said.

Touch itself is important for babies, Hernandez-Trujillo said.

Ang said that while it's not clear how massage benefits the immune system, research has suggested that stress suppresses the activity of natural killer cells.

Massage may also stimulate the release of hormones that play a role in the absorption of food, which may lead to weight gain, the Ang said.

The study is published today (Nov. 12) in the journal Pediatrics.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.