Studies have associated massage therapy with a host of benefits, including enhanced mother-infant interaction for depressed mothers, infant relaxation and decreased crying for colicky infants. Now a small study suggests it may help newborns develop a more regular sleep cycle as well -- which may mean more hours of uninterrupted sleep for mothers.
"The results of the present study show a clear, long-term effect of massage therapy on the development of circadian rhythm," says study author Sari Goldstein Ferber, Ph.D., of Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa in Israel. Ferber adds that the study is the first to examine the effects of massage on melatonin production in infants.
"Massage therapy by mothers in the perinatal period serves as a strong time cue, helping infants coordinate their developing circadian system with environmental cues," she notes. Circadian rhythm is a biological clock that helps humans and other beings adjust to the Earth's 24-hour rotational time.
Ferber and colleagues included approximately 20 mothers and their full-term infants in their study. Participants were assigned to one of two groups. In the treatment group, mothers massaged their infants in order to regulate the infant's bedtime, while the control group did not include massage and was able to keep a spontaneous sleep schedule.
Mothers in the treatment group were asked to provide 30 minutes of bedtime massage therapy to their infant for 14 days, beginning at 10 to 14 days after birth. The massage involved touching the infant's head with one hand and lightly stroking his or her back in a circular motion with the other.
To assess the effects of the massage, the researchers used a sensor to measure the infants' daytime and nighttime activity before and after the treatment and at 6 and 8 weeks of age. They also measured the quantities of a melatonin byproduct in the infants' urine at 6, 8 and 12 weeks of age. Melatonin is a sleep-regulating hormone secreted by the pineal gland at night. The secretion of melatonin is controlled by the circadian system, according to this study and others.
The 8-week-old infants in the massage group exhibited an activity pattern that was more closely aligned with their mothers, the researchers found. Their peak activity occurred during the early morning hours, while the control group was most active around midnight. In addition, the infants in the massage group were active during the afternoon, while the control group showed activity around the noon hour and slept during the afternoon. The researchers also found higher nighttime melatonin production at the age of 12 weeks in the massaged infants.
It's possible that the nighttime massages act as a strong time cue that helps the infants' developing circadian systems align with their mothers' night-day cycle, according to the study.
"The current findings highlight the importance of mother-infant interactions and environmental cues for the development of … the infant," Ferber says. The study results are published in the December issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
The researchers note that mothers in the treatment group may have changed behaviors and attitudes toward their infants as a result of the massages that may have affected the infants' sleep cycle. Future studies need to take such factors into account, they say.
This study was supported by Materna Ltd., Israel.
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