Massage Therapy May Heal What's Ailing You--and Your Preemie

A caregivers' touch can put preemies on the road to normal development and also relieve adults' suffering.


Human babies who are born before 37 weeks of gestation are considered premature, or "preemies." Preemies usually weigh less and have more medical complications than do full-term babies. Developmental psychologist Tiffany Field and her colleagues have shown that massage therapy is a simple, natural, and effective way to improve the development of premature infants. In their first set of studies (1986), these researchers stroked and manipulated the limbs of premature infants in a neonatal intensive care unit for fifteen minutes, three times a day, for ten days. A control group of preemies did not receive the touch therapy. Results showed that the massaged preemies gained 47% more weight, were more socially responsive, and went home 6 days sooner than did the preemies in the control group. These improvements translated into a savings of $3000 per hospital stay for preemies in the massage therapy group. One year later, the massaged infants still weighed more than the control group infants, and they also scored higher on a test of infant cognitive and motor development. Massage therapy has since been shown to alleviate suffering from a wide variety of medical conditions, including anorexia, bulimia, anxiety, depression, asthma, major burns, pregnancy, and rheumatoid arthritis. Mammals other than humans, such as rats, also benefit from massage therapy, suggesting that touch may be a basic necessity for mammalian development.


Massage therapy is not just effective, easy to give, and a pleasure to receive; it is also extremely cost effective. If all 470,000 premature infants born in the U.S. every year received massage therapy, Americans would save nearly $5 billion in health care costs.

Practical Application


As a direct result of Field and colleagues' research, 38% of neonatal intensive care units across the U.S. give massage therapy to preemies. On average, the preemies receiving massage therapy are gaining 49% more weight than preemies not receiving this therapy, and are discharged an average of 6 days earlier from the hospital, with an average hospital cost savings of $10,000 per infant (as of 1996).

Cited Research

Field, T., Schanberg, S.M., Scafidi, F., Bauer, C.R., Vega-Lahr, N., Garcia, R., Nystrom, J., & Kuhn, C.M. (1986). Tactile/kinesthetic stimulation effects on preform neonates. Pediatrics, 77, 654-658.

Additional Sources

Field, T. M. (1998). Massage therapy effects. American Psychologist, 53 (12), 1270-1281.

Field, T., Henteleff, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Martinez, E., Mavunda, K., Kuhn, C,, & Schanberg, S. (1998). Children with asthma have improved pulmonary functions after massage therapy. Journal of Pediatrics, 132, 854-858.

Field, T., Peck, M., Krugman, S., Tuchel, T., Schanberg, S., Kuhn, C., & Burman, I. (1998). Burn injuries benefit from massage therapy. Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, 19, 242-244.

Field, T., Schanberg, S., Kuhn, C., Field, T., Fierro, K., Henteleff, T., Mueller, C., Yando, R., Shaw, S., & Burman, I. (1998). Bulimic adolescents benefit from massage therapy. Adolescence, 33, 555-563.

Ronca, A. E., Lamkin, C.A., & Alberts, J.R. (1993). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 1, 61-74.

American Psychological Association, July 9, 2003