Massage for Baby Rats Leads to Better Outcomes for Premature Babies

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The Golden Goose Award

The Golden Goose Award honors scientists whose federally funded research may not have seemed to have significant practical applications at the time it was conducted but has resulted in major benefits to society. In this case, the impact of the researchers’ collective work has been momentous. The key discovery — that touch, in the form of infant massage, can vastly improve the outcome for babies born prematurely  — has affected millions of lives around the world and saved billions of dollars in healthcare costs in the United States alone. And it began when researchers studying infant rats decided to rub their backs with a tiny brush. “But infant massage has given premature babies a better start. Off-the-wall science saves lives,” said Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), who first proposed creation of the Golden Goose Award.

Representative Randy Hultgren (R-IL), a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said. “Federally funded science frequently results in unexpected benefits to mankind, and the work of these four researchers is no different. Offbeat scientific research—even massaging rats—can lead to key discoveries in our understanding of human development and improve the lives of many. These results are often unintended and were not explicitly factored into the original grant. I applaud yet another Golden Goose breakthrough.”

In 1979, a Duke University neuroscientist, a graduate student, and, a lab technician, were working with rat pups to study factors influencing two key growth markers, ornithine decarboxylase and growth hormone. To conduct their work, they needed to separate the pups from their mothers. However, they quickly found that the pups, though being fed and kept warm, were failing to thrive and their levels of the key growth markers were declining.

Tiffany Field, a psychologist at the University of Miami Medical School who was conducting her own research on how to help premature infants survive and grow, learned of the 1979 groundbreaking work and wondered whether it had implications for human infants. In 1986, Field published her own landmark study drawing from the work with rat pups. Field’s study demonstrated that using similar tactile stimulation in preterm human infants had immediate positive effects.

Premature infants who were massaged (by human hands) for 15 minutes three times a day gained weight 47 percent faster than others left alone in their incubators (standard practice at the time), were more alert and responsive, and were released from the hospital an average of six days sooner than the premature babies who were not massaged.

Field had learned Infant Massage from IAIM Infant Massage Instructors in the Miami area, something she did not mention in her paper on the subject.

by Vimala McClure