June 21, 2002

Touch therapy soothes infants in unit

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Annette Reed, RN, gives one-month-old patient Harrison Michael Blackburn an infant massage in the NICU. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Touch therapy soothes infants in unit

Staff nurse Annette Reed is a licensed massage therapist and certified infant massage instructor who applies these skills in the course of her work as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit. Reed, who also instructs fellow staff members in touch therapy and infant massage, has cared for babies for 18 years and says therapeutic touch has always been used to some extent by NICU nurses, whether consciously or not.

Touch therapy and massage reduce stress and are seen to help infants sleep deeper and longer. “Touch and massage are very nurturing, and they’re especially helpful for babies who have had repeated medical interventions,” Reed said.

Therapy begins with touch and containment with the hands, followed by stroking of any body areas that may have endured painful stimulus. Techniques also include skin-to-skin contact with the infant held to the parent’s chest, and body massage for the medically stable infant. Used by certified practitioners in many U.S. medical centers, the technique is adaptable for needs of individual infants. (The International Infant Massage Therapy Association was founded in 1986. Two of the world’s four institutes for touch therapy research are located in the United States, at UCLA and the University of Miami.)

Reed performs massage therapy with the babies she follows as a primary nurse and instructs parents on how to continue the therapy on their own. She also collaborates with medical teams and parents of other NICU babies. As teams note the benefits, Reed’s skills are increasingly requested.

Reed recently started a monthly class for staff, covering sensory development in infants, research supporting massage therapy, the importance of touch for hospitalized infants and strategies to relieve stress and overstimulation for these patients. “To help ensure positive interaction and good outcomes, our unit has a strong commitment to help parents understand their babies’ particular needs and abilities. Touch and massage therapy is one more way to enhance that interaction,” said Reed, who also performs chair massages for NICU staff and parents one day per week.

Reed recalls a particular patient whom she began working with halfway through a six-month admission. The baby’s mother was unable to visit the hospital regularly. Along with her fragile medical condition, this unhappy infant had developed severe touch aversion. Reed helped create a strong team of nurses for daily massage therapy. “By the time she left she was a happy, smiling baby. I know that we made a tremendous difference in her life,” Reed said. “We are constantly looking for ways to improve care in the NICU and this is one more way nurses can make a difference in patients’ lives.”