Pregnancy can be an exciting time as well as a time filled with concerns, especially for many newly pregnant patients. Prenatal massage focuses on the special needs of the pregnant person as their body goes through the dramatic physical and emotional changes of pregnancy. Massage, in all forms, has a relaxing, sedative effect to reduce mental and physical fatigue while relieving muscle tension and soreness. Many newly pregnant patients are seeking those benefits of massage, but express concern if massage during their pregnancy is safe. This primer is to provide answers to questions you may have to determine whether massage is right for you during your pregnancy.
What Are The Benefits of a Prenatal Massage?
Physical Benefits of Prenatal Massage
Massage assists the circulatory and lymphatic systems by promoting the movement of blood and lymph, which assists the heart and reduces swelling.
Pain Reduction. Massage helps alleviate stress on weight bearing joints (hips, pelvis, knees, ankles) and relieves muscle soreness from supporting the additional weight of a growing baby. Massage helps to soothe and ease sore muscles throughout the neck, back and hips and helps decrease pressure, pain, and cramps.
Massage stimulates proprioceptively, a person’s sense of awareness of their muscles and any tension they might be holding.
Massage helps to prepare the body for delivery by loosening the pelvis and ridding the body of excess tension prior to the onset of labor.
Massage also allows the recipient to learn relaxation skills valuable during labor.
Mental/Emotional Benefits of Prenatal Massage
In addition to being a great way to relieve everyday tension and the general aches and pains your body is experiencing, it can offer mental health benefits.
Massage can also relieve fatigue, enhance sleep and calm an active baby. Studies have shown links between the fetal autonomic and central nervous system development with the psychological state of the mother, indicating that a baby will sense and respond to their mother’s stress levels as registered by her increased heartbeat. “…Data from these studies, even with some contrary results, support the hypothesis that maternal psychological distress can affect the fetal autonomic and central nervous systems. In particular, depression and multiple assessments of daily stress are chronic mood states supporting the idea that, over the course of pregnancy, repeated exposure to mood–based alterations in women’s physiology shapes fetal neurobehavioral development.” (Kinsella).
Research shows that maternal stress has shown to have a significant association with increased fetal motor activity at 24, 30, and 36 weeks gestation. (DiPietro). Patients receiving regular massage therapy during their pregnancies have been shown to have decreased stress, decreased pain/discomfort and increased chances of a shorter labor duration. “Women who received massage therapy reported decreased depression, anxiety, and leg and back pain. Cortisol levels decreased and, in turn, excessive fetal activity decreased, and the rate of prematurity was lower in the massage group. In a study of labor pain, women who received massage therapy experienced significantly less pain, and their labors were on average 3h shorter with less need for medication.” (Field)
Research has also indicated that massage may also reduce anxiety and depression, decrease the stress hormone level of cortisol, enhance immune system function, improve sleep quality and calm an active baby. In a 2004 research study on ‘Prenatal Depression’ it demonstrated that decreasing a pregnant person’s cortisol level plays a direct effect on fetal activity. “In a 2004 study of fetal activity and maternal cortisol between 20 and 28-weeks’ gestation, Field et al. found that maternal cortisol levels were significantly related to increased fetal activity and inversely related to estimated fetal weight” (Field).
Should I Check with My OB/GYN Before Getting a Prenatal Massage?
Yes! Women with normal, low-risk pregnancies can benefit greatly from massage by a Certified Pregnancy Massage Therapist. However, women in high-risk pregnancies could experience complications with massage treatments. Particularly, if you have gestational diabetes, severe morning sickness, preeclampsia, high blood pressure, fever, viral infection, abdominal pain or bleeding — they’re all complications that could make massage during pregnancy risky. Consulting your doctor before beginning a massage therapy program is highly recommended. And if do decide to pursue massage treatments, notify your therapist immediately if at any time you experience any discomfort.
Are There Times When Massage During Pregnancy Should Be Avoided?
There are differing opinions about whether or not massage is safe during the first trimester of pregnancy due to the higher risk of miscarriage that exists during this time. Some pregnancy massage experts argue that pregnancy massage doesn't, in itself, cause miscarriage, and the research to show a link between a massage and a miscarriage is limited and unclear. Because many miscarriages happen in the first trimester, some massage therapists and doctors counsel against first-trimester massage simply to avoid any potential liability issues should a miscarriage occur. Again, consult your doctor to determine what is best for your situation.
How Will I Receive My Prenatal Massage?
Typically, the majority of women seek massage in the later stages of pregnancy. As a result, you are positioned on your side to give the therapist access to your back or in a semi-reclining position for massage on the front of your body. Your body will be supported with pillows and special cushions. You will be properly draped while the therapist is working, except for the area being massaged.
What Techniques Will Be Used During My Prenatal Massage?
During a prenatal massage session, your Certified Pregnancy Massage Therapist can incorporate a variety of techniques into each session. Depending on where you are in the pregnancy and what your concerns or needs are at the time they may use reflexology, Swedish massage, deep tissue, trigger point therapy and/or assisted stretching techniques.
What About Massage After Delivery?
Massage during the weeks after delivery helps to restore muscle tone in the abdomen and re-position the pelvis. Massage can also reduce tension and muscle fatigue caused by new postural positions associated with holding your infant, breast feeding, lack of sleep and routine change.
DiPietro JA, et al. Maternal stress and affect influence fetal neurobehavioral development. Dev Psychol. 2002;38(5):659–668.
Field, T. (2010). Pregnancy and labor massage therapy. Expert Review of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 5, 177-181.
Field T, et al. Prenatal depression effects on the fetus and the newborn. Infant Behavior & Development. 2004;27(2):216–229).
Kinsella, M and Monk, C. Impact of Maternal Stress, Depression and Anxiety on Fetal Neurobehavioral Development. 2013.
Prenatal Massage Fundamentals, Benefits of Prenatal Massage Therapy, Somatic Institute