woman massaging baby foot

“It’s great to see them be finally able to calm down"

Sometimes babies just can’t get comfortable. They cry and scream.

Infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, are often born prematurely or with complications.

Caregivers in Spartanburg Medical Center’s NICU now have a new way to bring comfort to the tiniest patients: neonatal massage.

“It’s just amazing to see them be so upset and irritable and unable to calm down, and then lay on their tummy and get a massage. After 30 seconds to a minute you can see them start to relax,” said Georgie McAbee, clinical unit educator in the NICU. “It’s great to see them be finally able to calm down.”

Spartanburg Regional Foundation’s NICU Fund paid for neonatal massage training for 20 nurses and two occupational therapists in 2016 and 2017. The NICU at Spartanburg Medical Center is the currently the only one in South Carolina to provide this certification for caregivers.

Considering the challenges these babies face, massage might seem inconsequential. But it can make a real difference, McAbee said.

Parents with healthy newborns are able to hold their babies, breastfeed them and pat their heads as they fall asleep. Many NICU babies aren’t strong enough for such contact.

The physical contact these babies experience is most often more clinical than nurturing. Caregivers wear gloves, and they may poke, prod, or handle these babies in ways that aren’t particularly comfortable. Babies dealing with pain and other symptoms can benefit from a massage.

“A real human touch can bring comfort,” McAbee said. “The babies love it.”

Massage, of course, is more than just comforting touch. Caregivers learn about specific muscles to stroke and learn various techniques that are safe and soothing for such small and fragile babies. 

McAbee said a group of NICU nurses went to Charlotte for neonatal massage training. They found the experience so meaningful that NICU manager Hope Garcia agreed to bring trainers to Spartanburg.

The training has empowered NICU nurses, Garcia said, and they feel an added confidence and satisfaction that comes with being able to comfort these tiny patients.

After performing 20 massages, a caregiver is authorized to teach babies’ parents (they do not receive official certification, but are taught basic techniques). Parents may, understandably, be nervous about handling their tiny infant while at the same time longing for the chance to be more involved in their child’s care. This program gives them important tools and facilitates bonding between parent and child. 

The bottom line for Garcia: These babies get better, faster.

“A baby eats better and grows more if he or she feels comfortable and is in a good mood,” Garcia said. “That means they go home quicker.”

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