PreNatal Massage Therapy

Pregnancy is something that happens everywhere, in every culture, every day.

How the duration of the pregnancy is viewed and the prenatal care is practiced, can vary wildly from culture to culture.  But almost all cultures have the belief that some form of massage is beneficial to the pregnant mother to be.

Because medical intervention was not always available in ancient times, massage was a valuable tool in traditional cultures for thousands of years. It was used to reposition the baby during labor if necessary. Comfort and relieve pain for the mother during her pregnancy, and provide postpartum healing after birth.

“There is hardly a people, ancient or modern, that do not in some way resort to massage and expression in labor, even if it be a natural and easy one.”  George Englemann, 1884

References to prenatal massage can be found as far back as 3000 years ago in Ayurvedic medical texts.

They have instructions on rubbing oils on pregnant woman during and after her pregnancy.

“Doula” was used as a term for the greek slave that assisted during childbirth. Today it’s a trained professional (most often a female) who is trained to assist another woman during childbirth and who may provide support to the family after the baby is born.

There is an Eskimo sculpture depicting a woman being massaged during labor..

A lot of traditional cultures have their own set of beliefs, mythology, traditions and rituals regarding massage and childbearing. Many use midwives and other woman to care for her during pregnancy and assist in childbirth. According to evidence some form of massage was used in Asia, Jamaica, Hawaii, and Native American, Latin American and European Cultures over the course of history.

Jamaican midwives have different techniques for each stage of labour. They rub the woman’s stomach with toona leaves, massage her body with olive oil and ease  pain by gently patting the belly with a warm, damp cloth.

Zapotec midwives in southwest Mexico detect the position of the fetus by massaging the mother’s legs and assessing tension and energy flow.

Malaysian mothers massage their navels with coconut oil to encourage the baby to descend.

Japanese midwives use acupressure, shiatsu and foot and leg massage during labor. ‘Samba’, the Japanese word for ‘midwife’, means  ‘the elderly women who massages”.

What is known today as PreNatal Massage, or Maternity Massage, didn’t come about until 1980.

Carol Osborne-Sheets, together with a variety of colleagues and perinatal professionals, developed instructional programs to teach prenatal massage. She set guidelines and protocols for pregnancy, labor, postpartum and infant massage.

Her goal was to have everyone involved in dealing with expecting mothers to understand how massage therapy could be used during this time.

“A woman’s body goes through many, many adaptations during pregnancy on every body level, not to mention their emotions. These changes have significant ramifications for how we can most safely and effectively support these clients.” Carole Osborne-Sheets.

What is PreNatal Massage?

Massage Therapy is an excellent complementary choice for prenatal care.  It’s similar to regular massage, but its customized to the individual needs of each pregnant woman. The way they are positioned on the table all depends on the client and the stage of pregnancy they’re at.

Prenatal massage is usually gentle, no very deep work is done.  This is due to the increased chances of blood clots. Woman experience an increased blood volume of up to 30-50% while they’re pregnant.  

There are several different ways to position a pregnant woman on a massage table. Obviously the mother to be makes the ultimate decision based on comfort. She can be positioned lying on her side, semi reclining on her back with the torso elevated. There are tables that have cutouts for the belly, but most people find that uncomfortable and if not properly supported, the weight can put a strain on the ligaments.  Her body will be supported by a system of bolsters and pillows to make sure she is comfortable and her body is in alignment and properly supported.

Why does it need to be different than regular massage?

Your center of gravity changes as your body changes. This can place stress on your back, neck, abdominals, and shoulders. A pregnant woman produces a hormone called Relaxin. It does just what it’s name suggests, It relaxes the ligaments in the pelvis and softens and widens the cervix.

But it can also make your joints less stable and pull your pelvis forward, causing low back pain. and putting more strain on your muscles.

Your muscles also have to adjust to carrying around extra weight. The weight of a growing baby can create tension in leg muscles and cause them to swell. This can lead to nerve inflammation and in some cases sciatic nerve pain.

“Pregnancy does a number on your posture. It compresses your lower back, weakens your core, and places a lot of pressure on your legs and feet,”  Abigail Dennis, M.D.

Studies have shown that prenatal massage can have both mental and physical benefits.

The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami found a weekly massage can lower  cortisol levels (stress hormone) and raise serotonin and dopamine.

Research has suggested that these hormonal changes lead to fewer childbirth complications.

They have also found a 75% drop in premature births among depressed women.

A Touch Research Institute study found that pregnant women suffering from depression had significant improvement in mood, as well as decreased levels of anxiety, after receiving a 20-minute massage twice a week.

While you are pregnant, your body is undergoing rapid stress-producing changes. These have a major impact on all the body’s system and can produce quite a bit of stress and anxiety. Stress can interfere with the hormones that promote labor. In addition, whatever the mother is feeling, can be passed to her unborn child.

“Everything the pregnant mother feels and thinks is communicated through neurohormones to her unborn child, just as surely as are alcohol and nicotine,” says Dr. Thomas Verny Founder of the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH)

As a fetus grows, it’s constantly getting messages from its mother. It’s not just hearing her heartbeat and whatever music she might play to her belly; it also gets chemical signals through the placenta.

A study, in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that this includes signals about the mother’s mental state. If the mother is depressed, that affects how the baby develops after it’s born.

“When passing through the placenta, the hormones of a mother experiencing chronic stress will profoundly alter the distribution of blood flow in her fetus and change the character of her developing child’s physiology.” Bruce Lipton, Ph.D.

However, it does work the opposite way also. Positive emotions can affect the unborn child as well.  When you’re peaceful and happy, your body will produce endorphins and enkephalins, two natural pleasure chemicals.  

Massage Therapy is an effective method of reducing stress and improving overall health for an expectant mother.  It can relieve some of the discomfort associated with pregnancy. Backaches, leg cramps, headaches, stiff neck, swelling.

What are the benefits of massage during pregnancy?

The most obvious benefit is just plain making you feel better. Your muscles are sore, your joints are loose, which puts more weight on the muscles, postural changes strain your muscles. Massage is a great way to make sore muscles feel better.

As we said before, pregnant woman need to avoid stress and anxiety as much as possible. Massage can help lower that anxiety, which will reduce the stress hormones, resulting in a happier, healthier pregnancy.

As hormone changes occur, emotions can become overwhelming.  PreNatal massage can help manage those feelings, with an increased production of serotonin, and calm the sympathetic nervous system.

By improving blood and lymph flow, massage can decrease the amount of swelling that is occurring, especially in the feet and ankles. This can actually help relieve headaches and improve blood pressure.

Proper postural alignment can be extremely beneficial and help reduce headaches, sciatic pain, low back pain, just to name a few. By releasing tension in the muscles, it is easier to maintain proper posture.

Poor sleep is an unfortunate side effect of pregnancy. By relieving physical discomfort and lowering stress and anxiety levels, massage can improve the quality of sleep the pregnant mother desperately needs.

Massage can enhance pliability of the skin and the underlying tissues.

Associating touch with relaxation before labor, can help touch during labor be more effective. By learning how to relax as a response to touch, pregnant woman can experience an easier labor. There is also some evidence to suggest that woman who receive loving and compassionate touch during pregnancy, transfer that loving touch to their newborn. Touch is so important for development, without touch babies fail to thrive.

Massage can also help woman come to terms with their changing body.  Weight gain can be particularly hard for some. Massage can help reconnect a woman to her body in a healthy and positive way.

PreNatal massage can improve the overall health and wellbeing for pregnant women. It should become a part of their routine care to help keep their pregnancy as emotionally and physically healthy as possible.  

*Always talk to your prenatal care provider before incorporating massage therapy into your wellness plan.


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