A long-time Miller School of Medicine developmental psychologist, whose touch therapy program has transformed the health of hundreds of premature infants, was honored in Washington, D.C., for her holistic treatment approach that was enhanced by research with rats.
Tiffany Field, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics, psychology and psychiatry and Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Mailman Center for Child Development, received the Golden Goose Award at a September 18 ceremony at the Library of Congress.
The prestigious award, created in 2012 by a coalition of business, university and scientific organizations, 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 economic and other benefits to society.
Field accepted the award along with two of her research collaborators, Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., and Gary Evoniuk, Ph.D. Her third collaborator, the late renowned neuroscientist Saul Schanberg, M.D., Ph.D., discovered more than three decades ago how rats licking their pups helped induce their offspring’s growth. In his lab, he and collaborators Kuhn and Evoniuk – who were studying infant rats at Duke University Medical School – decided to rub the pups’ backs with tiny brushes and witnessed the same outcome.
Field, whose research team was already massaging preterm infants at UM, learned from the rat pup study that increasing the stimulation to moderate pressure was critical for growth. When her research group applied more pressure, actually moving the skin, the preterm infants gained more weight and were discharged, on average, six days earlier. Since starting the research program in 1982, she has seen hundreds of fragile, preterm infants at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital rapidly gain weight and make other notable improvements.
“Originally we were using light stroking because these infants are so fragile. But that was the wrong kind of touch. Much like tickling, it increases heart rate and blood pressure,” said Field. “Using moderate pressure massage involves moving the skin, and that’s when we see the positive results.”
Applying moderate pressure propels a cranial nerve to send signals to the gastrointestinal tract, which then releases food absorption hormones. This increases motility along with many other benefits, said Field, whose breakthrough research has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and Johnson and Johnson.
The infants who were massaged for 15 minutes, three times a day, gained 47 percent more weight, were more alert and responsive, and were released from the hospital an average of six days earlier than premature babies who were not massaged.
In receiving this year’s award, Field and her collaborators join a list of elite scientists, selected by a panel of respected scientists and university research leaders.
“Researchers massaging rats: sounds strange, right?” said U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, who first proposed creation of the Golden Goose Award. “But infant massage has given premature babies a better start. Off-the-wall science saves lives.”
The research findings also reversed long-held beliefs in U.S. hospitals that touching preterm infants was detrimental. “It took a long time for neonatal intensive care units to overcome that attitude,” said Field.
Field’s approach to preterm infant care has been highly influential, as massage therapy is now used by close to 40 percent of neonatal intensive care units nationwide, a number that is steadily increasing. The program has also resulted in significant cost savings, since hospital stays are shortened by nearly a week.
“I hope receiving an award like this will convince Congress to commit more money to NIH funding and also help more neonatal intensive care units see the need to massage babies to help them grow,” said Field.
One out of eight infants in the U.S. is born prematurely, with associated costs that have been estimated at $52,000 per infant, or $26.2 billion annually nationwide. A recent analysis estimates the savings from Field’s approach at about $10,000 per infant, with annual nationwide savings of $4.7 billion.
Additional studies by Field and others around the world have continued to show beneficial outcomes of infant massage and revealed the underlying physiological mechanisms involved. Schanberg and Kuhn collaborated with her, using insights from the animal work to explore potential physiological and hormonal mechanisms responsible for the benefits of touch in human infants.