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Baby Massage Benefits For Your Premature Baby

Updated on November 18, 2015

Confusion after having a premature baby

For most women pregnancy lasts nine months and from shortly after birth they have a baby with them day and night. But for some mothers reality is vastly different; the pregnancy ends far too soon, and the baby has to spend a considerable time in hospital. This, coupled with feelings of confusion and guilt that accompany a premature birth, make it harder for the natural bonding process to occur. If you are in that position, please realise that your feelings are normal, and that there is help available. I’ve been there, so I have a good idea how you feel.

This article is one of a series on the challenges faced by mothers of premature babies and highlights the benefits of baby massage as a way to help you and your baby to achieve a loving bond.

Some Benefits of Massage For Your Baby

Professor Tiffany Field, a Miami child psychologist has studied the effects of healing touch on premature babies and found that in comparison to non-massaged babies, premature babies who are massaged:

gain weight more rapidly (Massage stimulates the vagus nerve, which aids digestion)

have better motor skills

have better mental development

are discharged from hospital 6 days earlier

Bonding with your baby

Although the birth of my first daughter was far from straightforward, I knew what it felt like to fall instantly and permanently in love with a baby. This meant that when my second daughter was born very premature the shock of that early birth was compounded by guilt that the deep sense of love was not always present. Much of the time in the early days after Lolo’s birth I felt useless: unable to provide for my baby, relying on hospital staff to tell me what I could do for her. Sometimes when she was very ill there was nothing I could do, and when she was not even able to tolerate the milk I expressed the sense of uselessness was overwhelming.

But mothers are never useless. Within two days of her birth I held Lolo in Kangaroo Care and the calming effect on her was obvious. (See the link to my article at the end of this post.) Kangaroo Care is one of the touch therapies that help both baby and mother to heal from the effects of premature birth. Baby massage is the other.

This article does not tell you how to massage your premature baby because I think that trying to learn baby massage from an article could easily lower your confidence, whereas receiving lessons from a qualified instructor is likely to give it a boost. However I hope you will feel encouraged by reading my experience of massaging my tiny baby and feel able to try it for yourself.

A salute that says “I am not happy."

This photo was not taken during massage, but it shows a premature baby salute. In it Lolo partially covers her face with one hand and stretches out her other arm. In the classic salute the arms would be more rigid and the eyes  more covered.
This photo was not taken during massage, but it shows a premature baby salute. In it Lolo partially covers her face with one hand and stretches out her other arm. In the classic salute the arms would be more rigid and the eyes more covered. | Source

Beginning Baby Massage for a Preemie

Giving a premature baby a massage is very different to doing so for a full-term baby, so be gentle on yourself if it doesn’t go as you expect.

Lolo was about four weeks old, and weighed around 3 pounds, when she was moved down a level of intensive care and a nurse suggested we try massage. At first this involved nothing more than laying Lolo on my lap and establishing eye contact. Lolo rapidly averted her eyes and her tiny arms went into a salute - a classic premature baby signal that indicates distress.

The nurse, Theresa, showed me how to hold Lolo’s hands close into her chest to comfort her, but it still took a few attempts before Lolo could relax enough for me to do any massage. At first I lightly held her feet and then gently stroked her legs, all the time watching her to make sure she was happy with the treatment.

If she held her hands together by herself then it was clear she was enjoying the massage. If she displayed the salute and didn’t relax after I’d held her hands to her chest then it was time to stop. I began to recognise cues, to understand my baby. Even that helped me to feel better, knowing that I could do something right.

A Happy Preemie Baby

Lolo is more relaxed now and her hands are closer to body.
Lolo is more relaxed now and her hands are closer to body. | Source

The Healing Power of Touch

This is part of what I wrote in my journal later that day after the first try at massage: I suppose I am going through a stage of accepting what has happened. Among the feelings of not wanting it to have happened, the feeling of just wanting to hold and protect Lolo, to be with her more, gets stronger and stronger.

Lolo was born at the nearest hospital with a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, but it was over a two hour round trip from our home. After five and a half weeks she transferred to our local hospital. While this made life easier, none of the staff there was skilled enough to guide me further in baby massage than the leg massages I had already learned to do. Then Lolo became ill again, and needed another drip. During the first four months of her life Lolo had seven blood transfusions. These, and blood tests, have left countless scars on her hands and feet but a more immediate effect was that she hated having her feet touched. If I forgot and held them during a nappy change she screamed, and when I tried to do massage she tensed up. I contacted Theresa who suggested still-holding her feet during Kangaroo Care. Gradually Lolo began to relax again, but by the time she left hospital I had only ever massaged her feet and legs and once laid a hand gently on her tummy.

At home Lolo was still easily over-stimulated (usually by her adoring sister) and stiffened whenever she was picked up or moved. Then she caught a cold. I had been warned of the danger signs for bronchiolitis: fast breathing, unable to feed, turning blue. None of these applied, but I knew something was wrong. She looked greyish and was abnormally sleepy. After a feed she suddenly went white, limp and stopped breathing. Her eyes rolled. Although she began breathing again we rushed her back to hospital. Within hours she was on a ventilator, needing 80% oxygen (air is 23%). It happened so fast I thought she was going to die. In the middle of the night she was transferred to the nearest hospital that had a bed available in paediatric intensive care.

Another month in hospital followed with more invasive – and life-saving – treatments. This time back home, the illness had left Lolo even tenser than before, and I was persistently plagued by memories of her birth, memories that left me feeling numb and frozen.

A nurse had given me the card of an instructor who taught baby massage one-to-one and this suited me perfectly because I was afraid to take Lolo to a group in case she caught another infection. The instructor showed me how to use slow strokes and gentle leg shakes to calm my baby. Lolo began to enjoy the massage. She never managed to cope with a full massage, but after a while I stopped seeing this as a failing on my part and learned to do only as much as she wanted. We did legs and tummy one day, face and back another. She relaxed; I relaxed. I began to trust my ability to sooth my own baby, an ability staff had pointed out while Lolo was in hospital but which somehow I couldn’t then trust.

By 7 months after her birth Lolo rarely cried. She woke in the mornings cooing and smiling. She giggled and grinned. She’s twelve now, and though she doesn’t grin and giggle much in the mornings these days, she does much of the rest of the day!

It’s not so much our experiences that shape us as our beliefs about those experiences. I kept a journal for the first few months of Lolo’s life, and reading it now I can see that over and over I wrote of my love for her, my awe at her strength. Yet for a long time I felt guilty that I hadn’t felt that initial overpowering rush of love I felt with her sister. Eventually I came to see that love doesn’t come only in one shape or size, and that the slow, gentle love I felt for her was equally valid. For Lolo and I, baby massage was one way of allowing that love to grow.

Some Benefits of Baby Massage For You

I hadn’t read about Professor’s Field’s studies until after I’d written most of this article, but what she discovered is the same as I experienced. Mothers who massage their premature baby are have fewer symptoms of depression, lowered stress levels and gain higher self-esteem. When a mother massages her baby the hormone oxytocin, which is a calming hormone, is released in both mother and baby.


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    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      9 years ago from UK

      Gail, I've done most of the hubs in this series already, just in over several months. This one was performing poorly so I got some advice on it a Facebook group and have now revamped it a bit because I'd like people who may benefit to be able to find it. I would like fathers and extended family to see it for exactly the reasons you mention - so that it might help them support the mother.

      Thank you for your detailed comment, I really appreciate it.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      9 years ago from UK

      Kelley, how great that you'd studied Tiffany Field's work. I bet you were a great NICU nurse - probably just like the ones who looked after my daughter.

      I remember that you also had a premie; how early was he? Kangaroo care is great too, so soothing for both mother and baby.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      9 years ago from UK

      Vocalcoach, LOL! And thanks for your comment!

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      9 years ago from UK

      Hi Deborah,

      I was very fortunate in that the nurses who looked after my daughter took time to support parents, especially mothers. I've met some mothers who did not get such good support, and that's really why I wanted to write some hubs for them. Even if the mothers are too busy looking after their babies to read, perhaps someone else will.

      Thanks for your kind comment.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      9 years ago from South Carolina

      I am so glad to see that you are going to create an entire series of articles about the many challenges faced by mothers of premature babies.

      As you so poignantly write, bonding with a premature baby is much different than after a regular birth as the life saving equipment and intense medical care presents extreme challenges to getting physically and also emotionally close.

      You write with great honesty about your feelings after Lolo's premature birth and since you offer the reader specific techniques to draw closer to a premature baby there is tremendous value in sharing this information.

      Mothers of premature babies can draw comfort from the experiences you and Lolo went through, knowing that, as you so eloquently put it, "Love doesn’t come only in one shape or size, and the slow, gentle love I felt for Lolo was equally valid as the instant love I'd felt for her sister. For Lolo and I, baby massage was one way of allowing that love to grow."

      Voted up across the board except for funny and also shared. This information needs to be read by anyone who is currently affected by a premature birth, including fathers, extended family so that all those who love the baby can be supportive and understanding of the birth mother.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      As a former NICU nurse I firmly believe in the healing power of infant massage. I studied Tiffany Field's work in my doctoral program and found the results of her study to be extremely encouraging for mothers of premature babies. I also had a premie and used infant massage with him along with kangaroo care. Now I use the rocking chair! Lolo is beautiful! Voted up and awesome. Kelley

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      9 years ago from Pahrump NV

      The healing power of touch can even help babies to gain weight. (If only it would help adults to lose weight.) : ) This is such a good hub on baby massage and I'm glad you wrote about it. New mothers and fathers especially need to learn this. Thank you Melovy and you have all my votes plus sharing! Hugs to you.

    • DeborahNeyens profile image

      Deborah Neyens 

      9 years ago from Iowa

      This is a really interesting look at how a premature birth impacts the mother, as well as the baby. The mother's feelings of guilt and frustration are easily overlooked when all the concern is focused on the baby. I'm glad Lolo is doing well now.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thanks Jools. It was very hard leaving her in hospital. We were fortunate though as she had no long term ill effects and is a healthy happy kid who is now doing well at school.

      Kangaroo Care was a Godsend for us, truly.

      Thanks for your comment!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      9 years ago from North-East UK

      Interesting article Yvonne and your photos are cute. The Kangaroo Care sounds like an interesting concept - it must be so hard when you need to go home and leave the baby in hospital.

    • Melovy profile imageAUTHOR

      Yvonne Spence 

      9 years ago from UK

      Thank you.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      your baby is cute


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