Pregnancy brings growth and changes in countless ways, and many of these changes exert physical and mental tension on expectant mothers. Many cultures have long employed skillful touch to help restore balance to the bodies and minds of pregnant women, and science increasingly confirms its safety and efficacy.

Research indicates that proper delivery of this unique type of massage offers expectant mothers relief from back pain, morning sickness, depression, and labor pain.

Pregnancy Massage vs. Traditional Massage

Therapists are trained to adapt massage techniques for the anatomical changes that occur throughout pregnancy. In a regular massage, people lie face-down on their stomachs and on their backs. These two positions can cause severe discomfort for an expecting mom and fetus.

A professional pregnancy massage therapist provides special cushions or holes to accommodate growing bellies and breasts. They steer away from deep tissue work on the legs to avoid the risk of dislodging blood clots and are gentle on the extremities, avoiding certain areas that might trigger contractions.

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Eases Morning Sickness

Over half of pregnant women experience morning sickness, that notorious nauseous feeling during the first trimester of pregnancy. The symptom occurs when an increase in prenatal hormones causes an imbalance in the brain-gut axis, affecting the nervous and gastrointestinal systems. Pregnancy massage promotes relaxation and stress reduction, helping calm the nerves and alleviate morning sickness symptoms.

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Relieves Back and Pelvic Pain

As the abdomen grows outward during pregnancy, stress on joints and muscles often leads to pain in the lower back and pelvis. The stretching of pelvic ligaments can cause discomfort as well. According to a systematic review, pregnancy massage is beneficial for reducing low back pain and pelvic girdle pain.

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Reduces Edema

Many pregnant women deal with edema, a swelling in the lower legs, ankles, feet caused by reduced circulation and fluid retention. Massage effectively promotes the movement of excess fluid through the lymphatic system and out of the body. In one study, pregnant women who received foot massages for five days had markedly smaller lower leg circumferences than those who did not get massages.

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Alleviates Depression

About 7% of pregnant women experience depression, but they or their physicians often ascribe symptoms to pregnancy rather than pre-existing mood disorders. Also, obstetricians typically focus on an expecting mother's physical health more than mental health. Left untreated, these women are at an elevated risk of suboptimal prenatal care, lower nutritive intake, and postpartum depression. A study comparing the effects of massage therapy and yoga on women with perinatal depression, participants in both treatments reported lower depression and anxiety and better relationships with their life partners. The researchers believe that massage and yoga both stimulate pressure receptors that lead to lower cortisol levels and increased activity of the vagus nerve, helping the body react more efficiently to stress.

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Lightens Labor

Research suggests that massage during labor can significantly reduce the pain and duration of the birthing process. In one study, pregnant women received massages on their backs and legs during the first 15 minutes of every hour in labor. These women reported less discomfort and need for medication than women who did not receive labor massages. Their labors were also an average of three hours shorter than those not massaged.

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Best Techniques

Lying a pregnant woman on her back can compress the vena cava, causing blood pressure to drop and putting the woman at risk of weakness, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath. Doctors and midwives recommend placing expectant mothers on their sides for massage, because it facilitates maximum circulation, cardiac function, and fetal oxygenation. Offices that offer pregnancy massage typically have clients prop up their sides with pillows or lie on tables with cut-outs that allow their bellies to rest.

Many massage experts incorporate a variety of massage strokes, including

  • Compression
  • Cranial sacral therapy (head and scalp massage)
  • Effleurage (circular movements with the palm of the hand)
  • Feathering
  • Gentle stretching
  • Lengthening
  • Petrissage (a kneading technique)

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Research Your Practitioner

Certain massage points and techniques could induce discomfort or contractions and premature labor. Look for a massage therapist with certification in prenatal massage. Ask if the therapist understands which essential oils are helpful or potentially harmful in pregnancy.

The office should be clean, with a comforting atmosphere and staff dedicated to high hygiene and safety standards for their clients. A therapist should never expect you to expose more of your body than you are comfortable with or make you feel uneasy.

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Many healthcare providers advise against massage during the first trimester of pregnancy because of the higher risk of miscarriage during this period. Expecting mothers with certain complications should only get a massage with their doctor’s permission. Experts are uncertain of the effects of massage on high-risk pregnancies or pregnancy-induced hypertension. Pre-eclampsia and deep vein thrombosis are potentially dangerous conditions that might be exacerbated by this treatment.

Massage therapists may be reluctant to treat women who have recently experienced preterm contractions, intense headaches, or severe swelling. Rare placenta problems such as accreta, abruption, and previa could lead to bleeding, so it is best to postpone a massage or obtain clearance from a physician. Women with recent injuries, surgeries, or organ transplants should ask a doctor about getting a massage during a new pregnancy, as well.

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Techniques for Home Massage

Experience some benefits of pregnancy massage at home for quick and convenient relief. Ask your partner or friend to rub your feet, shoulders, temple, or scalp for a few minutes. They can study online videos or books on prenatal massage to learn safe techniques.

Learn to practice prenatal yoga if your physician approves. This gentle exercise and meditation activity can ease pain and stress without having to find a practitioner or schedule an appointment.

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