Preterm babies don’t just struggle with health problems. They can also struggle from underdeveloped autonomic nervous systems. This makes them unable to handle stressful situations very well, and it makes even normal daily activities like a diaper change and feeding an overwhelmingly stressful event. However, a study published in the journal Early Human Development and conducted by the University Of Louisville School Of Nursing showed that massage therapy may help reduce stress for preterm infants.

For healthy infants, massage has long been thought to be a positive bonding experience between a mother and her child. It’s soothing for both the mother and baby, and can be a natural way to stop your child from crying, or to get them to fall asleep. It can even be used to help colic. Besides reducing stress, massage therapy for preterm infants has also been known to cause significant weight gain for preemies and low birth weight infants as well.

The study at the University of Louisville School of Nursing used 21 medically stable male and female preterm infants for the research and found that at the end of two weeks, mild pressure and massage of the soft tissues followed by flexing and extending the joints of the arms and legs increased the heart rate variability in males, but not in female preterm infants. Heart rate variability is a way to measure autonomic nervous system function and development. Infants who are carried to full term show increased HRV, but preterm infants typically demonstrate decreased HRV and don’t appropriately respond to stressors.

Heart rate variability increased each week in the four male preterm infants that received the massage therapy, and it didn’t increase in the male infants that didn’t receive massages. This research suggests that massage therapy did, in fact, enhance the development of the ANS in preterm male infants and it also suggests that massage therapy may improve preterm infant response to stressful events.

The team that conducted the study was surprised to find that the massage techniques worked better on males over females. Their hypothesis for why the girl’s HRV didn’t increase is that hormones prevented it, but they are still unsure of the exact reason why girls weren’t affected.

If you think massage therapy would help your infant, make sure to talk to your doctor. Also, make sure to consult your doctor or a trained infant physical therapist before attempting massage therapy at home. An infant’s body can be very fragile and incorrectly administered massage therapy could do more harm than good.