Massage for promoting growth and development of premature and low birth-weight infants

In utero, infants are exposed to physical stimulation. This raises the question whether gentle physical massage helps babies born before 37 weeks gestation or weighing less than 2500 grams (5.5 pounds) to develop after birth, and if it can improve their behaviour. The review only included randomized controlled trials, studies in which a group of babies received massage and was compared with a similar group which did not. The authors searched the medical literature and contacted experts and found 14 studies. In most of these studies babies were rubbed or stroked for about 15 minutes, three or four times a day, usually for five or ten days. Some studies also included "still, gentle touch", in which nurses put their hands on babies but did not rub or stroke them. On average, the studies found that when compared to babies who were not touched, babies receiving massage, but not "still, gentle touch", gained more weight each day (about 5 grams). They spent less time in hospital, had slightly better scores on developmental tests and had slightly fewer postnatal complications, although there were problems with how reliable these findings are. The studies did not show any negative effects of massage. Massage is time consuming for nurses to provide, but parents can perform massage without extensive training.

Authors' conclusions: 

Evidence that massage for preterm infants is of benefit for developmental outcomes is weak and does not warrant wider use of preterm infant massage. Where massage is currently provided by nurses, consideration should be given as to whether this is a cost-effective use of time. Future research should assess the effects of massage interventions on clinical outcome measures, such as medical complications or length of stay, and on process-of-care outcomes, such as care-giver or parental satisfaction.

Read the full abstract...

It has been argued that infants in Neonatal Intensive Care Units are subject both to a highly stressful environment - continuous, high-intensity noise and bright light - and to a lack of the tactile stimulation that they would otherwise experience in the womb or in general mothering care. As massage seems to both decrease stress and provide tactile stimulation, it has been recommended as an intervention to promote growth and development of preterm and low-birth weight infants.


To determine whether preterm and/or low birth-weight infants exposed to massage experience improved weight gain and earlier discharge compared to infants receiving standard care; to determine whether massage has any other beneficial or harmful effects on this population.

Search strategy: 

The following databases were searched: the specialized register of the Cochrane Neonatal Review Group and that of the Cochrane Complementary Medicine Field. Searches were also undertaken of the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, The Cochrane Library, Issue 3, 2003), MEDLINE, EMBASE, Psychlit, CINAHL and Dissertation Abstracts International (up to July 1, 2003). Further references were obtained by citation tracking, checking personal files and by correspondence with appropriate experts. Data provided in published reports was supplemented by information obtained by correspondence with authors. There were no language restrictions.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised trials in which infants with gestational age at birth <37 weeks or weight at birth <2500g received systematic tactile stimulation by human hands. At least one outcome assessing weight gain, length of stay, behaviour or development must be reported.

Data collection and analysis: 

Data extracted from each trial were baseline characteristics of sample, weight gain, length of stay and behavioural and developmental outcomes. Physiological and biochemical outcomes were not recorded. Data were extracted by three reviewers independently. Statistical analysis was conducted using the standard Cochrane Collaboration methods.

Main results: 

Massage interventions improved daily weight gain by 5.1g (95% CI 3.5, 6.7g). There is no evidence that gentle, still touch is of benefit (increase in daily weight gain 0.2g; 95% CI -1.2, 1.6g). Massage interventions also appeared to reduce length of stay by 4.5 days (95% CI 2.4, 6.5) though there are methodological concerns about the blinding of this outcome. There was also some evidence that massage interventions have a slight, positive effect on postnatal complications and weight at 4 - 6 months. However, serious concerns about the methodological quality of the included studies, particularly with respect to selective reporting of outcomes, weaken credibility in these findings.