Infant Massage

Reprinted with permission of
The Herald Journal, Monday, January 14, 2008

By Jen Beasley

At an orphanage in Haiti full of sick children, Vonda Jump once met a young girl with a body so stiffened from laying in bed that a physical therapist routinely came just to wrench the girl's legs into a bent position. The girl would cry in pain.

Jump had been experimenting with massage as a means of promoting health, and proposed trying it on the girl. Massaging the girl's leg before the next physical therapy visit, Jump was astonished to see them move easily this time to their bent position. The girl did not cry.

"It was the most dramatic instance of the power of massage that I have ever witnessed," Jump said.

Now a researcher at USU's Early Intervention Institute, Jump has just finished one study and is beginning another to examine just what effect, if any, massaging a baby can have on its overall health. Her personal observation in Third World orphanages indicates that there may be benefits.

"What I've found there is that physical contact intervention made a difference in babies' health," Jump said.

The data Jump is currently analyzing came from a four-month study of 65 babies 3 to 7 months old. Half the babies were massaged for at least 15 minutes per day, and half the babies were rocked instead. The techniques were not used to soothe the babies, but were done when the baby was calm, relaxed and "ready for interaction."

Jump said her results are preliminary, but it's beginning to look like massaging the babies did make a difference.

"It looks like between the groups in terms of overall illness there may not be a difference, but in terms of specific symptoms it looks like infant massage may result in babies having fewer runny noses, fewer incidents of congestion, less diarrhea than babies that are rocked," Jump said.

It's important for babies to be exposed to germs, Jump said, because that is how their immune systems develop defenses. But reducing a baby's symptoms could be critical, because small ailments are often more threatening in babies than adults. Diarrhea, for example, is the second leading cause of infant mortality after pneumonia.

"The thing about this study is it's really to look at whether or not we can offset babies' immune systems," Jump said.

Now Jump is in the beginning stages of finding families in order to conduct a new similar study on infants with Down syndrome, babies that she said get sick about 12 times more often than others.

The key behind the research, Jump said, is establishing "secure attachment" between the baby and the mother. The mothers in both the rocking and massaging groups in the study engage not only in their respective physical activities, but also use the time to sing, talk to, look at and generally interact with their babies.

In a society where Jump says books and culture promote "parenting as a convenience," the interaction is a deliberate way to connect the baby and the mother during a crucial period in a baby's development.

"The reality is, our babies are so young, they're only young for a short period of time," Jump said. "Massage is a great time for communication between mother and baby, because sometimes we're busy with life and we don't really devote one-on-one full attention to the baby, and this is time we can devote just to the baby."

The massage itself is a series of small, firm motions on a baby's legs, stomach, arms, face and back. Jump, who is certified to teach infant massage, recently showed Margee Robertson how to massage her 5-month-old Landon not as part of the study, but simply because Robertson wanted to know.

Landon responded chattily, kicking and cooing during the leg massages, but crying when Robertson advanced to the stomach.

Jump said the first time it's done infant massage can be a lot of stimulation as the baby looks at, feels and hears his mother all at once. She added that eventually infants adjust and look forward to the massage, coming to associate the rubbing together of hands to warm oil as a precursor to the massage.

Jump said the results of the study on normally developed babies should be finalized by April or May. Ultimately, Jump said she thinks the key is devoted and individualized attention for babies, and babies in both the massage and rocking groups may be benefiting some.

"Regardless, both in the massage group and the rocking group, there was a lot of cooing and laughing, sometimes babies fell asleep and there were some instances of crying, but it didn't look like overall there was a trend toward unhappiness."

Anyone interested in participating in the infant massage study on babies with Down syndrome should contact Dr. Vonda Jump at 797-3579 or at Vonda@eiri.usu.edu. Participants will be paid $40.

Utah State University Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services
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