Mother-Child Massage Helps Babies Sleep

Promotes Regular Sleep Schedule, Increases Melatonin

From the WebMD Archives

Dec. 17, 2002 -- A massage before bedtime may be even better than a bath for helping both mother and baby get a good night's sleep. New research shows mother-child massage can help newborns develop a more regular sleep schedule, which means more hours of uninterrupted sleep for both.

Researchers say massage therapy has already been shown to provide many benefits for new mothers and infants, such as promoting mother-child bonding and combating postpartum depression, increasing infant relaxation, and reducing crying among colicky infants. But this is the first study to suggest that massage helps infants adjust their sleeping patterns to coordinate with their mothers by increasing their production of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin.

The findings appear in the December issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Researcher Sari Goldstein Ferber, PhD, of the department of neonatology at Tel Aviv University in Israel, and colleagues also found that massage therapy by mothers in the first few weeks of life "serves as a strong time cue, helping infants coordinate their developing circadian system with environmental cues."

The circadian rhythm serves as a biological clock that helps humans adjust to Earth's natural 24-hour day and night cycle. Researchers say the body's secretion of the hormone melatonin is thought to be controlled by this circadian system. Melatonin relays information about sunlight periods during the day and regulates sleep patterns at night.

For the study, about 20 new mothers and their babies were divided into two groups. One group was instructed to give their infants 30 minutes of bedtime massage for 14 days, starting 10 to 14 days after birth, and the other group followed their normal sleep routine. The massage consisted of touching the infant's head with one hand and lightly stroking the child's back in a circular motion with the other.

To measure the effects of the massage therapy, researchers monitored the infants' daytime and nighttime activity before and after the treatment and later at ages 6 and 8 weeks. They also measured levels of a by-product of melatonin found in the babies' urine at 6, 8, and 12 weeks.

Researchers found that the 8-week old infants who received massage therapy had an activity pattern that more closely reflected that of their mothers. The massaged infants were most active during the early morning and afternoon, while the non-massaged babies were most active around midnight and slept during the afternoon.

The study also found that massaged babies had higher levels of melatonin production at night compared with the non-massaged infants by the age of 12 weeks.

The researchers say the mothers found the effects of the massage were helpful for inducing sleep in their infants, but the mothers may have also changed other behaviors that may have affected sleeping patterns found in this study. They say future studies should take this into account.

SOURCE: Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, December 2002 • News release, Health Behavior News Service.