Pregnancy Massage

Pregnancy, and the first few months following birth, are times of huge change. It is vitally important for an expectant mother to nurture her own body, so that she may, in turn, nourish the life within her. Many women find that regular pregnancy massage treatments help keep them in optimum health during this special time. Massage therapist Jo Hogan explains.

In many different cultures the world over, women are routinely massaged throughout their pregnancies, births, and during their first few weeks with their new babies. This gentle tradition is common is such places as Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands, and is often performed by the midwife or birth attendant as part of antenatal and postnatal care.

In South Africa, for example, the elder women of the Nama Hottentot tribe give massage treatments to pregnant women several times a week to prepare for their pending births. Expectant mothers in Uganda receive massage regularly in an effort to make their muscles supple for an easier delivery, and in South America, warm herbal oils and pastes are massaged into the mother's belly to encourage the skin to stretch and remain supple. As massage therapy becomes more commonplace in Western culture, and recognised within our medical communities, we are beginning to appreciate the many physical and emotional benefits it has during pregnancy, birth, and into the postpartum period.

Although it is common knowledge that massage feels good to receive, modern research studies are showing that regular massage treatments during pregnancy have a wide range of benefits for both the mother and her baby. For example,  regular massage treatments may help to negate the effects of stress on a mother, and therefore on her baby.

Studies on the effect of maternal stress on the unborn child show that women who experience severe or prolonged stress, depression, or anxiety during pregnancy are more likely to have a low birth weight baby or pre-term labour. Research by Dr Michael Meaney, an expert in maternal health and wellbeing, also indicates that infants of highly stressed mothers may be more likely to display anxiety disorders later in life.

In a recent study conducted by the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, women received regular massage treatments throughout the second trimester. The study concluded that the massage group reported a marked decrease in symptoms of stress and anxiety compared to the control group. "Massage helps women feel more comfortable and less stressed during pregnancy, and therefore they can expect a better outcome," said Tiffany Field, PHD, director of Touch Research Institutes, co-author of the study and advisor to the Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute, LLC.

In addition, the study reported that massage also alleviated aches, pains, and swelling for the mother, improved her sleep, and eased depression.

What you should know
The benefits of massage therapy during pregnancy and the postnatal period include:
👐 Reduced stress levels and a chance to deeply relax, enjoy your pregnancy, and bond with your unborn child.
👐 An easing of common pregnancy discomforts, such as back and joint pain, aching hips, and headaches.
👐 An easing of swelling and varicose veins, as well as improving blood and lymph circulation.
👐 An enhanced mind/body awareness, allowing more active participation in your birth experience.
👐 Postnatal massage treatments help to strengthen and tone the body, easing the discomforts of childbirth and breastfeeding, as well as improving energy levels.

Things to be aware of before having a pregnancy or postnatal massage:
👐 Massage in pregnancy is safe in all trimesters and right up to birth, but it is important to seek out a therapist who has advanced training in pregnancy and postnatal techniques.
👐 You will need to let your LMC know you are having massage treatments.
👐 If you have any pregnancy or postnatal complications, such as placenta previa, high blood pressure, or a c-section, your therapist may request written consent from your midwife or doctor.
👐 Most pregnancy massages are done in the side-lying position with plenty of support from pillows and bolsters. This is the most comfortable and strain-free position for you and your baby. avoid massage tables that have “belly holes”, as these can put undue stress on the uterine and lower-back ligaments.
👐 It is safe to lie on your back for a limited time up to 28 weeks, but avoid this position after your second trimester.
👐 Communicate with your therapist as to what kind of pressure you prefer, and how you can be comfortably positioned.

Massage during birth
As pregnancy massage is common practice among most traditional cultures, so too is the touching and caressing of a woman during her labour. In Malaysia, the navel is massaged with coconut oil, said to help the baby descend. In Japan, acupressure or shiatsu points are pressed to encourage an easy and quick delivery. A traditional Jamaican midwife has a whole repertoire of massage techniques for the different stages of labour, including rubbing the abdomen with leaves to help position the baby, and lightly massaging the whole body with olive oil to ease the intense contractions.

Recent studies have also shown that women who receive massage during labour reported a decrease in depressed mood, anxiety and pain. In addition, the massaged mothers had significantly shorter labours, a shorter hospital stay, and less postpartum depression.

In our Western culture, men are now assuming a more active role in the birth room and learning simple massage techniques can be a wonderful way for fathers to support their partners during labour with calm, reassuring touch.

Massage at every stage
Pregnancy: “Being pregnant with my son was a wonderful time in my life, and a fortnightly pregnancy massage played a significant part in making it such a special time. For me, a massage was not an indulgence; it was a necessity, both physically and emotionally. It was a way to connect with the changes taking place in my body and the new life that was developing inside me. My therapist was able to relieve both the physical stresses that pregnancy put on my body as well as the emotional strain and stress that I felt in my busy day-to-day life. After the birth of my son, a postnatal massage was a welcome relief from the pressures of new motherhood which had brought on a whole new range of physical and emotional strains.” ~ Anna, mum of baby Ollie

Labour: “During my labour, my mum and my husband put the techniques learned from the labour massage class to good use. As I was having contractions, they kept massaging my lower back, which was incredibly sore. My preferred position for each contraction was a kneeling-forward pose, providing easy access to my back. In between contractions, they applied heated wheat packs to my abdomen and lower back, and during the contractions massage not only helped ease the pain, but also provided me with some much needed distraction.” ~ Nicky, mum of baby Zoe

Post-birth: “The beautiful one-hour massage I had after Noah was born really helped during that tough first couple of weeks. My therapist not only had magic hands, she had a wonderfully calming presence, and the massage left me feeling far better, both physically and emotionally.” ~ Kylie Smith, mum of baby Noah

Postnatal massage: Mothering the mother
Following the birth of her baby, a mother not only has to recover, but also care for her dependent newborn, 24/7. It's not surprising that this special yet challenging time is honoured by many cultures with body care rituals that help to support and nurture the new mother.

In Malaysia, a specially trained masseur comes every day for 30 days to massage the mother, covering her belly with warm herbal pastes to tone the uterus, before binding her abdomen to help strengthen the muscles and internal organs. In Java, the new mother's body is massaged all over with rice-flower paste, and a mudpack with added herbs is applied to her forehead. 

Jo Hogan is the owner of Bella Mama, an Auckland-based massage company that specialises in working with pregnant and post-natal women and their families. Bella Mama provides massage treatments, pre- and postnatal yoga classes, as well as tuition in labour massage and baby massage. To contact Bella Mama, phone (09) 477 3767 or visit




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