During pregnancy, a woman's skeletal structure increasingly supports more weight and her organs shift to accommodate her growing baby. The journey can be uncomfortable. Linda, a nationally certified and licensed massage therapist trained in pregnancy massage says, "A massage therapist can do very specific muscle manipulation throughout a woman's pregnancy to alleviate discomfort in many areas of her body."
What the Studies Say
Researchers at the Touch Research Institute (University of Miami School of Medicine) have found evidence to support the use of massage therapy in pregnant women. Massaged women reported a decrease in depressed mood, anxiety, and pain. These women also showed a more positive attitude following the first massage during labor. Massage was also associated with other benefits, including shorter labor times, shorter hospital stays, and less postpartum depression.
Betsy, a 41-year-old woman pregnant with her second child, received weekly massage therapy. "Massage has allowed me to be active and healthy all the way up to these last days before I'm due," she says. During this pregnancy, morning sickness was much less problematic than last time. Massage helps her back pain, and she sleeps better the night after a massage. She has not had leg cramps or swelling in her hands or feet.
"Without massage as a regular part of this pregnancy, I would have lost my mind after the fourth month!" Betsy says. She credits pregnancy massage with quieting the voices of fear and anxiety, and relaxing her body and her spirit. "For me, massage is a very important tool in surviving pregnancy."
When Not to Receive Massage
Pregnancy massage is generally very safe and satisfying, but it is not for everyone at all stages of pregnancy. That is why it is important to use a certified prenatal massage therapist.
Massage to ankle reflex points—areas of the ankles that correspond to the uterus and ovaries—should be avoided unless a woman wants to bring about labor. Massage directly over varicose veins is not a good idea, but treatments done to surrounding areas will improve circulation and relieve tension in the varicose tissues.
In general, some swelling is normal in pregnancy, and massage can help relieve some of the discomfort. However, fairly rapid and/or severe swelling of the hands and face late in pregnancy can be a sign of potentially dangerous conditions and requires immediate medical care; massage is not the appropriate therapy in this case.
If you have other conditions, it is important that you talk to your healthcare provider before you schedule an appointment with a massage therapist. For example, if you have a high-risk pregnancy, high blood pressure, or pre-eclampsia, seek advice from your healthcare provider first. If you are experiencing preterm labor, massage can help improve circulation and relax you, but massage of the abdomen should be avoided.
Regular Massage Is Optimal
You need to see your healthcare provider on a regular basis, so consider doing the same for your massage therapist. If you were a regular massage junkie before you became pregnant, more frequent visits may be fine. If your budget, schedule, and healthcare provider approve, once a week would be ideal. If you are unaccustomed to massage or are in the first trimester, seek the advice of your healthcare provider and a prenatal massage therapist to learn when to start.
Infant massage can be a healthy model for family massage. The whole family can participate, which helps create a bond between parents and child. For premature babies, it has been shown to decrease the length of hospitalization and help improve weight gain. It helps infants become acclimated to a loving touch and helps them relax. A good time to do infant massage is after a bath.
Finding a Pregnancy Massage Therapist
Begin with the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA)—a governing body for all massage therapists, including those trained in pregnancy massage. The AMTA has a chapter in each state and can provide you with a list of certified therapists in your state. Also, ask other medical professionals you know. Chiropractors, obstetricians, and other professionals often have a network that you can tap into.
When you have a list of names, ask the following questions to help make the experience a positive, healthy one:
- How long have you been practicing?
- What is the special training you have had in prenatal massage?
- How much massage experience do you have with pregnant women?
- How will you handle positioning me as I progress in my pregnancy?
If the therapist cannot answer these questions to your satisfaction, find a therapist who can.
The American Massage Therapy Association
American Pregnancy Association
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
Women's Health Matters
Abstracts about massage. The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine website. Available at: http://www6.miami.edu/touch-research/Massage.html. Accessed September 22, 2015.
Field T, Diego M, Hernandez-Reif M, Deeds O, Figueiredo B. Pregnancy massage reduces prematurity, low birthweight, and postpartum depression. Infant Behav Dev. 2009;32(4):464-460.
Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Taylor S, et al. Labor pain is reduced by massage therapy. J Psychosom Obstet Gynaecol. 1997;18(4):286-291.
Massage and pregnancy—prenatal massage. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/prenatalmassage.html. Updated September 2, 2016. Accessed September 26, 2017.
Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 9/22/2015