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Massage therapy lauded for infants, especially those born prematurely

Chongwon Park learns to massage his newborn daughter, Elle, on Tuesday at St. Mary's Children's Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. Massaging infants can help relieve discomfort and help parents foster a relationship with their child from an early age. Mike Krebs / Forum News Service1 / 2
Chongwon Park learns to massage his newborn daughter, Elle, with assistance from Jeff Ahlborg on Tuesday at St. Mary's Children's Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. Parents are taught to use a variety of strokes to stretch and massage their infant. Fathers are encouraged to massage their child to help establish a relationship from an early age. Mike Krebs / Forum News Servie2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn. -- It was expected that Allie Heidemann would be born on the Fourth of July, but Charlie and Billie Heidemann's second child had other ideas.

Allie arrived early — way early — weighing just over 2 pounds and measuring in at 1 foot long when she was born on March 27. Because of that, the Heidemanns of West Duluth have been spending a lot of time with her in the neonatal intensive care unit at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center.

They've also been getting some lessons, including training in infant massage.

"We just went over a bunch of different physical therapy massages to keep her loose and keep her growing correctly and her muscles strong," said Charlie, 28, who is with mom and baby as often as his work for the railroad allows.

"I don't think anybody really prepares to massage a baby," he added.

But that's part of the mission for Dana McNamee, Katie Moench and other occupational and physical therapists at St. Mary's who have been certified in infant massage training.

"This group of therapists ... took an entire weekend out of their own time to go and learn this," said Kari Tchida, nurse manager for the NICU.

'Like a limp noodle'

Though their primary focus is on parents of babies in the NICU, the infant massage trainers said they're happy to work with parents of other newborns as well.

Bridget Park and her husband, Chongwon, chose infant massage among other educational opportunities Essentia offered, she said, before and after their daughter, Elle, was born a little behind schedule on June 1.

"It seemed like a really nice way to calm a baby and to bond with them and to do a lot of skin-to-skin touching," Bridget said.

She was pleased that Chongwon got to learn with Elle just five days after she was born, as an instructor demonstrated on a baby doll, Bridget said.

Elle responded well, she said.

"She was very, very peaceful afterwards," Bridget said. "Kind of like a limp noodle, like after going to a spa."

The couple, who live in West Duluth, both will use infant massage for their first baby together, but likely in different ways, she said.

"My husband is really, really excited about it," Bridget said. "It's something that he will definitely be doing on a daily basis. I'm more of the one that would probably use it if there was some kind of issue" such as digestive or sinus problems.

Multiple strokes

McNamee, an occupational therapist, and Moench, a physical therapist, became certified as infant massage trainers through training offered by Portland, Ore.-based International Loving Touch Foundation, they said.

They learned the wide variety of massage strokes that are appropriate for babies and small children — nine strokes for the legs and feet alone. There's a general pattern, too.

"We always keep a hand on the baby ... so there's a connection between the infant and the parent," McNamee said. "The strokes work from the middle of the body out to the very extremity, and then we do a variety of different strokes and then we come in."

The strokes mimic the body's circulation, she said.

Massage isn't actually performed on prematurely born infants until they reach their birth age, McNamee said. Until then, the skin is too immature to handle that sort of touch. Parents are trained using doll babies.

But the evidence is in, McNamee said, that preemies especially benefit from massage beginning after their due dates.

"It's been proven to promote circulation, promote better sleep patterns, improve digestion, increase durability," McNamee said.

Some research, including a study published in the January 2013 Journal of Perinatology, indicate a form of infant massage even can be beneficial for medically stable preemies at 29 to 32 weeks.

'Skin to skin'

Tchida said the important thing is to establish touch early. She lauded Charlie Heidemann for quickly using "kangaroo care" with Allie.

"It's skin to skin," she said. "That's so vitally important, with those big mitts of hands, to be able to have that containment. It starts there with dad having that opportunity to bond with baby."

It also can be taught to parents of children in the hospital's pediatric unit.

"I've taught it on the peds floor for parents of 6-year-olds who will be going through chemotherapy," McNamee said.

McNamee practiced on her young daughter when she was learning infant massage. It was a hit, and the 3-year-old would request the "I love you" stroke when she had a stomach ache.

"We have a specific type of technique that we teach parents for the colicky babies who have their digestion off — a couple of different strokes on their bellies for that gassy baby or a baby who is not pooping," McNamee said.

A facial stroke can be used to help clear the baby's sinuses, she said.

Knowing the cues

There's more to teaching parents than just imparting knowledge about infant massage, McNamee said.

"We teach them all along, not just touch, but how to read their baby's cues, how to know if she's ready to be interacted with."

All of this might sound daunting, especially to a parent of a premature child. But parents need not be intimidated, Moench said.

"It's important for parents to know that you really can't do any wrong," she said. "A therapeutic, loving touch from a parent is always good, and it doesn't have to be by the book. If your intent is in a loving way, there's going to be a positive response."

The role of the parents is irreplaceable, Tchida said.

"In our environment, where there are machines and beeps and buzzers and stuff, this is that one thing that a parent can do for their child that none of us can do," she said.

For the record, Charlie Heidemann was undaunted.

"It was awkward," he said, "but easy."