Pregnancy: it’s the glowing, wonderful time a woman may have in her life where she experiences dramatic change and grows another being (or beings) within her while radiating positive powerful world-conquering energy! It’s also potentially a time of intense discomfort, uncertainty, raging uncontrollable hormones, stress, pain, worry and anxiety. Questions of will I be a good mother? What the hell am I supposed to do? And why in the world is everything for babies so expensive when it’s so damn small?! Doesn’t it make sense then that a relaxing massage is a fantastic idea for the mother-to-be: a quality moment of relaxation that has benefits that reach far beyond that moment, benefits for both mother and child.
Before bombarding you with the vast array of pro-pregnancy massage facts, it must be clearly stated that massage is not right for every pregnancy, as every pregnancy is unique and complex. As such, massage should only be performed with the clearance by a doctor especially if there is a history of miscarriages or other contraindicated conditions such as high blood pressure or placenta previa. Secondly, many argue that massage should not be performed in the first trimester; however, there is no research-based evidence for this argument, but again if there are any concerns then clearance by a doctor is recommended.
Benefits of pregnancy massage:
The benefits of massage for the mother-to-be are both physical and psychological, including reduced pain and discomfort and heightened feelings of well-being (Field, Diego, Hernandez-Reif, Schanberg, & Kuhn, 2004). A fairly recent systematic review found that the benefits of relaxation, including massage, during pregnancy are manifold for the mother’s stress levels, foetal development and neonatal adaptation (Fink, Urech, Cavelti, & Alder, 2012). Benefits to the developing baby may be surprising to some; however, it has been demonstrated that a massage for the mother-to-be has positive influences upon the growing baby, such as improved blood flow to the placenta, which can improve obstetric and foetal outcomes (Field et al., 1999). Implementation of massage during pregnancy has been shown to result in decreased cortisol levels (stress hormone) for the mother-to-be and an increase in the blood-levels of ‘feel-good’ hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin (Field et al., 1999). Without exception massage has been found to decrease anxiety levels (Field, Hernandez-Reif, Diego, Schanberg, & Kuhn, 2005). The benefits of massage to maternal psychological well-being are well supported with many experts strongly recommending that massage be a main-stay for any expectant mother experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression during her pregnancy (Fink et al., 2012). Even for those mothers who have a relatively low-stress pregnancy, massage has been shown to improve both mood and sleep, as well as foetal attachment (El-Hosary et al. 2016). Having a moment to oneself where you can relax and focus on the being growing within you and the changes occurring to your body, a mindful moment, is too often overlooked as being important and is too commonly under-appreciated.
Physical conditions that massage can help to relieve during pregnancy:
The list of aches and pains experienced by pregnant women is extensive: leg and back pain, headache, backache, muscle cramps etc. etc. Women have reported improvement in all these areas owing to receiving a massage during pregnancy ((El-Hosary et al. 2016). Intense lower back pain is one of the most commonly sighted issues that occur during pregnancy and one which massage can most definitely assist in reducing. Oedema (build-up of fluid, most commonly in the arms and legs) has also been shown to be reduced through the application of gentle massage (Coban & Sirin, 2010). Although the bulk of the literature relates to the benefits of massage therapy, very few papers have delved into the negative side effects, with the oft mentioned negative side effects mostly a result of heresy and old wives’ tales. The limited research that has been conducted looking specifically at the potential harm of massage therapy to either mother or child, have however, found no evidence to indicate harmful side effects (Fogarty, McInerney, Stuart, & Hay, 2019).
Something noted when researching this topic, is that there are almost no mentions of women’s apprehension towards receiving a massage, in particular the embarrassment and general discomfort many women feel owing to the dramatic physical changes occurring to their body. Embarrassment as to their weight gain, their varicose veins and stretch marks is enough for many women to refuse to seek out what is potentially one of the most valuable and beneficial experiences that they can receive while pregnant. This is a crying shame when one considers all the benefits to both the mother and baby that are being missed out on. All we can do at MOTR is to educate about the benefits, get the word out there, and stress that when receiving a massage, the mother-to-be is in a safe, non-judgemental environment, in the comfort of their own home, where they can be assured that really, no one cares about how their body has changed physically; the concern is how we can make that body, that is doing such an amazing job of growing a human, feel better and more relaxed.
This brings us to what to expect during a pregnancy massage. Unlike a regular relaxation massage which occurs either face down or laying on one’s back, a pregnancy massage usually occurs with the client lying on her left side. The reason for this is that lying on the side optimises the blood flow and heart functioning of the mother, enabling adequate and uninterrupted flow of oxygen and nutrients to the baby. Also, from a comfort point of view, many women experience discomfort with front and/or back lying- side lying allows the mother-to-be to relax without any concerns of causing harm to her baby. There are trigger points around the body that are also contraindicated during pregnancy, namely around the lower back, tops of shoulders and areas on the feet that correlate in reflexology to the uterus and ovaries. These areas should only be massaged very lightly with no deep pressure at all. The reason for this is the long-held belief that these areas if stimulated, can induce miscarriage (again, the research-based evidence on this is scant, however, one would tend to err on the side of caution). Lastly, pillows are your best-friend during a pregnancy massage- they can be used to prop the growing belly; in between legs to alleviate any discomfort and under the head and arms to ensure adequate support.
MOTR therapists and pregnancy massage:
Massage has been widely clinically recommended as an alternative, safe and affordable method of pain relief and stress-reduction during pregnancy (El-Hosary et al. 2016). Yet the first thought when it comes to wanting to give a present to a soon-to-be mum is often the cute baby clothes and toys that will largely remain untouched or irreversibly destroyed. However, the overwhelming evidence on the matter suggests that perhaps what is more needed for both the mother and baby is the gift of a massage: a moment of relaxation and serenity where all those feel-good hormones can be released and the stress hormones decreased, and where any pain and discomfort can be alleviated. Importantly, those aches and pains can be relieved not only in that moment but for a significant period of time following the initial treatment. It is the hope of MOTR that pregnancy massage will stop being viewed as an indulgence, or as an added bonus during pregnancy that only happens once maybe twice if a mother-to-be is lucky; but rather as a necessary and vitally important part of a woman’s pregnancy journey.
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Coban, A. & Sirin, A. (2010) Effect of foot massage to decrease physiological lower leg oedema in late pregnancy: A randomized controlled trial in Turkey. International Journal of Nursing Practice. 16(5), 454-460.
Field, T., Diego, M. A., Hernandez-Reif, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2004). Massage therapy effects on depressed pregnant women. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 25(2), 115–122.
Field, T., Hemandez-Reif, M., Hart, S., Theakston, H., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (1999). Pregnant women benefit from massage therapy. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 20(1), 31–38. https://doi.org/10.3109/01674829909075574
Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C. (2005). Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 115(10), 1397–1413. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207450590956459
Fink, N. S., Urech, C., Cavelti, M., & Alder, J. (2012). Relaxation during pregnancy: what are the benefits for mother, fetus, and the newborn? A systematic review of the literature. The Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing, 26(4), 296. https://doi.org/10.1097/JPN.0b013e31823f565b
Fogarty, S., McInerney, C., Stuart, C., & Hay, P. (2019). The side effects and mother or child related physical harm from massage during pregnancy and the postpartum period: An observational study. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 42, 89–94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2018.11.002