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The Effect of Touch With Preemies

All babies seem to do a little better when they're held, caressed and hugged frequently—but for those born prematurely, this is especially true. In fact, how much a preemie is touched can make a huge difference in her overall well-being and ability to thrive. Sarah Tufano, a nationally certified massage therapist, certified educator of infant massage and owner of Massage Therapy of Boston in Boston, Massachusetts, notes that infant and preemie touch and massage are "a powerful means of teaching children, from day one, that they are loved and deserving of love."


Preemies may seem like tiny, sleepy bundles, unaware of the bustling world around them. But their response to human touch tells us otherwise. A 2005 study at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine found that compared with preterm infants receiving regular care, massaged preemies exhibited between 21 and 48 percent greater weight gain and had hospital stays of three to six days fewer than preemies in the control group. A 2008 study by the same group of researchers found that after a 15-minute massage, preterm infants had a greater increase in temperature than those who spent the same amount of time in an incubator. "Massage releases oxytocin, the 'feel-good hormone,' helping the bond between mom and baby to develop, and also decreases cortisol, the 'stress hormone,'" Tufano says. "When a preemie has lower levels of cortisol, this can help him feel calmer and also have more stable breathing patterns and heart rates, improved sleeping patterns and an easier ability to be comforted," she notes.

MORE: How to Bond With Preemies

Kangaroo Mother Care

There's science behind snuggling up to mom, it turns out: Research has shown Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC) to have a profound effect on preemies' growth and development. The two major components of KMC are skin-to-skin contact between mother and newborn, and frequent or exclusive breastfeeding. A study conducted at the Defense Medical Center in Taiwan and published in the "Journal of Nursing Research" in 2002 that followed 34 mother-infant pairs at a hospital in Taiwan, China, found that KMC infants had higher average temperatures, slept more quietly and cried less than those receiving standard incubator care. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Detroit, Michigan, reviewed several studies and concluded KMC reduces mortality and other complications common in preemies, such as infection, lower respiratory tract disease and hypothermia. KMC is a lifeline for some parents: Tufano observes that parents of preemies "can oftentimes feel physically estranged from their baby, who spends so much time in the intensive care unit. Through the power of touch, they are able to see just how much their baby loves them and how much they can help him to thrive."


Preemies aren't the only ones reaping the benefits of touch—moms and dads also experience rewards from closeness to their newborn. And that enables them to be more tuned in to their little one, fostering a healthy cycle of bonding. A 1998 study following 488 preemies at the School of Psychology at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, found that at the gestational age of 41 weeks the 246 mothers who practiced Kangaroo Mother Care were more responsive to their infants during the stressful situation in which infants had to remain in the hospital longer. KMC moms also felt more competent than those in a traditional care (TC) group and experienced what researchers call a "resilience effect" in which they felt fewer feelings of worry and stress than the TC moms. And dads benefit from being able to touch their preemies too: As Tufano observes, "It is often so much easier for moms to bond with their babies since they have carried them for several months. ... I often hear from moms that it is the dads who continued to massage the babies, as it became 'their thing' and their own unique way of bonding with their babies."

Failure to Thrive

Preemies are at risk for developing failure to thrive (FTT), meaning they aren't making progress in their growth—which emphasizes the vital nature of touch. In a 1994 study, researchers at Cornell University Medical College in New York found that moms of preemies with FTT provided less touch during feedings and play time than the comparison group. Sometimes, a lack of touch can be because moms are afraid touch will be harmful: If you're the mom of a preemie and are concerned that KMC, massage or touch in general will harm your baby, Tufano suggests talking to your pediatrician, who will be able to advise what is okay and not okay. And hopefully, you'll be able to get on with the business of bonding through touch, clearly an essential, healing and transformative part of your preemie's first days in the world.

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