Pregnancy massage: a beginner’s guide

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Pregnancy is the perfect time to consider indulging in a massage – here’s why.

Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Annie Hayes

While you might usually think of massage as an occasional luxury, one of the most beneficial times to indulge in a massage is when you are nearing your due date.

A well-timed pregnancy massage can make the nine-month journey to motherhood a little more comfortable – helping you feel supported and nurtured, while at the same time soothing the aches and pains associated with growing a tiny life.

We asked Dr Deborah Lee, of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, and Dr Ashfaq Khan, consultant and founder of Harley Street Gynaecology, to talk us through the potential benefits, techniques, and safety precautions associated with a pregnancy massage:

What is pregnancy massage?

A pregnancy massage refers to a massage undertaken during pregnancy or after birth, and may also be referred to as a prenatal or postnatal massage. A pregnancy massage is not the same as simply having a massage in pregnancy, Dr Lee advises. ‘Although the massage principles are the same, dedicated care and attention is required due to the pregnancy, so a pregnancy massage requires an informed approach from a specially-trained therapist.’

‘A pregnancy massage requires an informed approach from a specially-trained therapist.’

For many women, pregnancy may be the perfect time to consider indulging in a massage. ‘In pregnancy, women often experience increasing fatigue, tension, and anxiety,’ says Dr Lee. ‘This is often also an emotional time, as the pregnancy places additional strain and responsibility on the mother. Pregnant women tend to feel increasingly vulnerable during their pregnancy, and often feel protective and have concerns for their unborn baby.’

As the pregnancy progresses, there are a range of physical symptoms that can crop up, ‘from both the physiological changes of pregnancy, and the physical toll of carrying the pregnancy itself,’ says Dr Lee. ‘This can result, for example, in swollen hands and feet, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, back pain, and neck and shoulder pain.’ A pregnancy massage may help to ease these symptoms.

Are massages during pregnancy safe?

It’s safe to have a massage on the right part of the body at the right time of the pregnancy, says Dr Khan. This is because there are certain massage techniques – and certain body parts – that should not be included in a pregnancy massage. ‘Posture during massage is also an important factor,’ he adds. ‘A properly-trained therapist with special interest in pregnancy massage can advise mothers accordingly.’

While there’s no science linking a pregnancy message with complications, most therapists don’t give massages in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. ‘As there is a risk of spontaneous miscarriage in first trimester in one in eight pregnancies, most therapists try to avoid this period,’ Dr Khan continues. ‘Massage doesn’t directly contribute to these miscarriages.’

Benefits of pregnancy massage

While there has been little research on pregnancy massage, most experts believe it is unlikely to be harmful, and may even be beneficial in relieving certain symptoms, such as backache, says Dr Lee. ‘Massage in pregnancy to treat backache is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in their clinical guideline on antenatal care for pregnant women with uncomplicated pregnancies,’ she says.

There may also be measurable mental health benefits. In a study spanning 84 depressed pregnant women in their second trimester, half the participants were given a 20-minute massage once a week for 16 weeks, while the rest received traditional pregnancy care. ‘The massage group reported less anxiety and depression, and lowered levels of leg and back pain compared to the control group,’ says Dr Lee. ‘They also had higher levels of dopamine and serotonin, and lower levels of cortisol and adrenaline. There were also no premature deliveries in the massage group, compared to 11 per cent in the control group.’

You don’t necessarily have to shell out on professional massages every week to reap the benefits of pregnancy massage. In another study, pregnant women with major depression were given a twice weekly 20-minute massages from their partner for 12 weeks. Compared to the control group, the study showed improvements in depression ‘not only towards the end of the pregnancy, but also in the postpartum period,’ says Dr Lee. ‘There were also less premature deliveries in the massage group compared to the control group.’

What to expect from your appointment

If you decide to have a pregnancy massage, it’s very important that you have a safe and positive experience, says Dr Lee.

Here’s what you can expect from your appointment:

  • The therapist will ask you for your medical and pregnancy history from you.
  • They will explain what will happen during the massage and ask whether there are any body parts or techniques you would prefer to avoid.
  • You will be asked to lie on a massage couch, which has may have been modified to accommodate your bump.
  • Alternatively, you may be carefully positioned and supported with pillows. In later pregnancy, it is not advisable to lie flat on your back for long periods.
  • The massage will involve your whole body, including massaging your bump, unless this is something you are not comfortable with.
  • A session can vary in length, but will typically last one hour. The therapist will ask how you are feeling throughout.
  • After the massage is over you will be given something to drink, as it is important to stay well-hydrated.

If you are considering a pregnancy massage, you should always choose a qualified therapist. If your pregnancy is high risk, it’s not advisable to have a pregnancy massage. ‘If you have any concerns, you should discuss this with your midwife or obstetrician,’ Dr Lee says.

Which body parts should be avoided?

Pressure points on the hands, wrists, ankles, and pelvis should be avoided, says Dr Lee, as should any form of deep massage – ‘especially on the legs, due to the potential risk of stimulating or dislodging a blood clot.’ While it’s fine to lie on your front, as your pregnancy progresses, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to do so. ‘For a massage in late pregnancy, you will usually be asked to lie on a couch which is specially adapted to accommodate your growing bump,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes the therapist will position you using a special wedge or cushion underneath you.’

From the second trimester, specifically from 24 weeks onwards, you should avoid lying on your back, says Dr Khan. This is true any time, not just during massage. ‘An enlarged uterus can compress blood vessels and reduce circulation to your placenta and to the baby,’ he explains. Instead, lying on your left-hand side is recommended. In the third trimester – and specifically after 34 weeks – massage on the abdominal area should be avoided, he says. ‘The top part of the uterus can trigger contractions, or can give an uncomfortable feeling to the mother.’

How to do a pregnancy massage at home

A good massage session is all about relaxation, says Dr Lee. ‘Make sure you set the scene so you, your partner, and your unborn baby will all get the most out of the session,’ she says.

Follow these tips for a safe, comfortable pregnancy massage at home:

  • Dim the lights, make sure the room is warm and play some soft music.
  • Position yourself comfortably. Don’t lie on your back or front for long periods. Instead, position yourself to one side using cushions or pillows.
  • Use body lotion or massage oil – but take care to avoid essential oils, which can be harmful during pregnancy.
  • Start at the feet and work upwards. Avoid deep pressure on the backs of the legs, and go gently on the bump. Continue upwards to the arms, shoulders, neck and scalp.
  • Take time to tell your partner what feels good, and also if anything doesn’t. One of the key points for a successful massage is feeling cared for.
  • Make sure your partner knows to apply gentle pressure, and to avoid pressure at the hand, wrist, ankle, and pelvic bone.
  • Any kind of stroking or rubbing is good. They can use circular movements with thumbs and fingers, or, for example, use one hand to push upwards and the other to push downwards to ‘stretch’ the skin.
  • Make sure you have plenty of water both before and after the session, so you stay well hydrated.

Aside from a traditional massage, consider incorporating a perineal massage into your routine. ‘Besides shoulder, back and foot massages, perineal massage can be useful for those who are preparing for a vaginal delivery,’ says Dr Khan. ‘It increases elasticity and improves blood flow to the perineum, which eventually helps the muscles to stretch more easily and less painfully during childbirth.’

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