Pregnancy Massage An Exploration Of The Benefits
An exploration of the Pregnancy Massage benefits
Article written by Karen Stewart
Touch is the basis of our existence. It was the touch or contact of an egg and sperm that gave each of us our experience of life here on this planet. And it was the touch in the sexual act of the man and woman that caused this meeting of egg and sperm. The sense of touch is the earliest of all the senses to develop in the human embryo. It is now known that at as early as six weeks old, with the embryo still less than an inch long, light stroking of the upper lip or wings of the nose will cause bending of the neck and trunk away from the source of stimulation. The foetus’ skin is caressed by the waters of the amniotic fluid and contact with the soft walls within the womb. Research shows that the foetus will play with the umbilical cord, gripping it experimentally. According to researcher and hypno-therapist Mary Straub ‘this may be a source of real comfort and embryonic pleasure’ for the foetus. All in all, the experience in the womb is very tactile. It seems fitting to me then, that pregnancy is an ideal time for the woman to reconnect with this primordial sense of touch, and in doing so, deepen her connection to her baby. Massage can offer comfort, pleasure, nurturance, support and relaxation to pregnant women as they become more in tune with themselves, their bodies and their babies.
Pregnancy is a bodily process, so becoming aware of physical sensations is necessary in order to be fully present in it. Receiving massage is to experience a great lesson in body awareness, learning what areas are tense in the body, what parts when touched bring the most relaxation and which parts are perhaps extra sensitive. Massage is very grounding and anchors one in their body .This is crucial for the pregnant woman as she connects more with her body and her baby.
It is very common nowadays, in our fast paced Western World for pregnant women to continue working up to maybe week 36 of their pregnancy, having very little time to themselves to really tune into the process before the baby is born. This is in contrast to some other communities or tribal societies where the woman is looked after and tended to by others. She is afforded the opportunity to relax, to be totally with her state and to connect intuitively with the whole process of pregnancy. This support is also there for her after the baby is born. Her meals will be served to her and great effort will go into nurturing her so that she in turn is left free to nurse and nurture her baby without additional stress. The pregnant woman in such a society is connected with the feminine, with her body and has her roots to the earth well established. The same cannot be said for most in Western civilisations caught up with technology and out of touch with our bodies. Indeed it is perceived odd or strange if a woman takes time off during pregnancy, and not needing to because of sickness, but just because she is pregnant. I acknowledged and praised a case study client recently for finishing work at 29 weeks so that she could take more care of herself and nurture her pregnancy. She was delighted with me doing this, stating that I was the only person in her life who held this view.
There is a greater need here to discover the wisdom of our bodies. Pregnancy presents a tremendous opportunity for a woman to connect with the feminine, creative aspect of herself. Bodywork, incorporating massage and antenatal exercise techniques as well as exploring breathing and visualisation will help the woman reconnect with the ancient childbearing wisdom, tapping into inner strengths and abilities. These help activate the right brain- the feminine side. The right brain is connected with our intuitive, instinctual and creative aspect and this is what will be called upon in the labour or birth experience.
So whilst women in western society may see that they have no choice but to continue working during their pregnancy, they can avail of the opportunity to connect more with their bodies and their baby by taking time to attend regular pregnancy massage sessions. This has huge benefits for both mother and baby, on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level.
Physical: The body undergoes huge changes in pregnancy with all systems involved. Massage goes a long way in helping to alleviate the discomfort and potential problems experienced in the body as it adapts to these changes.
Gastrointestinal system In the early days increase in hormonal activity is responsible for nausea and vomiting- ‘morning sickness’. Indigestion and heartburn are also discomforts that are experienced by many pregnant women later on in the pregnancy. Shiatsu massage techniques are very effective in addressing these complaints, some of which can be taught to the woman herself, empowering her also to self heal at home between sessions. Constipation can be helped through working reflex areas on the feet.
Cardiovascular system The adaptive responses by this system in pregnancy are very significant. Blood volume increases by 30% or sometimes more and blood flow is also increased. The woman feels more heat in her body and the nose may feel congested due to the extra blood volume. Facial massage and reflex work on the feet may reduce this discomfort. Venous return is diminished as the weight of the uterus compresses on the iliac veins and inferior vena cava. This can result in oedema in the lower extremities. Swedish massage, lymphatic drainage and shiatsu principles will greatly help with this, ensuring the flow of nutrients and oxygen in to the cells and the transport out of the waste products. Massage is also known to reduce blood pressure which is experienced by some pregnant women.
Respiratory function is greatly enhanced by specific techniques in pregnancy massage and breathing. As the uterus grows, the diaphragm muscle used in breathing gets displaced and pressure may be placed on the lungs. The pregnant woman tends to feel breathless. Exercises and postures may be shown to the woman to assist in this area as well as doing specific massage and passive stretch work. Good effective breathing is crucial for mother and baby, to ensure a rich supply of oxygen circulating in the blood. So deep abdominal breathing is taught in the pregnancy massage sessions. Breathing in this way ensures that all the air in the lung gets exhaled. With no stale air remaining, more oxygen can get in on the in breath improving health and vitality.
Muscular and Skeletal System As the pregnancy progresses and the weight of the uterus increases there is usually increased curvature of the spine. This poses a challenge to the structural alignment of the body and may result in problems with balance. The changes in posture will also cause the muscles to compensate, leading to strain and subsequent pain and tightness in many muscles. This can usually felt in the sacro- iliac area, lower back, upper back and shoulders. There is also strain on the weight bearing joints – sacroiliac and hip The hormones relaxin, oestrogen and progesterone in pregnancy causes a softening of the connective tissue which may also contribute to joint instability and strain on the weight bearing joints. The back pain is often the reason why some pregnant women seek out massage in the first place and find great relief from it. The therapist trained in pregnancy massage is able to advise in the area of postural correction, positions and exercise, helping the woman minimise strain and discomfort to her body during pregnancy, labour and also postnatally as she adapts to taking care of her baby. This support is invaluable to the woman.
Urinary system Urinary frequency can be a discomfort or ‘nuisance’. As the uterus enlarges the bladder gets compressed, therefore it’s capacity to hold urine is decreased. The extra weight in the pelvic area also puts strain on the pelvic floor muscles, reducing their supportive and sphincter capacities. The pregnancy massage therapist has a major role to play here in supporting the woman to strengthen these muscles- demonstrating exercises, explaining their importance and encouraging the woman to participate in the performing of these exercises regularly. The therapist may also be a reliable source of information knowing what yoga based exercise classes for pregnant women that may be available in the given area.
From a Shiatsu perspective the Bladder and Kidney, representing the water element, are very important areas to work on during pregnancy. Working on specific acupressure points and energy pathways, known as ‘meridians’, connected with the Bladder and Kidney, will supply vital energy to the pregnant woman and keep the body fluids purified. Pregnancy is a watery state, a Yin state and indeed many women are attracted to water during pregnancy- maybe in an unconscious way identifying with the baby nestled in the waters of the womb.
From an Eastern energy point of view, The Kidney stores the Essence- the substance that underlies all organic life- governing birth, growth, reproduction and development and is therefore ‘a crucial energy during pregnancy’, says Suzanne Yates in her book Shiatsu For Midwives. She describes further: “Essence is the deep or reserve energy that sustains us…..it determines each person’s basic constitutional make-up….Essence is the energy that supports our longer-term growth and development.
Work to nourish the kidney then is vital and also energy work to promote good flow of Essence to the uterus. I have really felt the baby in the womb respond to this work and it is usually a source of comfort and pleasure for the mother too. So we have looked at the physical benefits of pregnancy massage for the mother. What about the research?
In his book ‘Touching- The Human Significance Of the Skin, Ashley Montagu cites numerous studies of skin stimulation and licking by animals and noted….’a striking behavioural feature of both the pregnant rat and the pregnant cat is intensified self-licking …. as the pregnancy progresses….’
‘…. The self-licking in which many mammals indulge, …. while having the effect of keeping the animal clean, is probably more specifically designed to keep the respiratory, circulatory, digestive, reproductive, neuroendocrine, and immunological systems- adequately stimulated…….’ In relation to pregnancy he relates the experiments of Drs. Lorraine Roth and Jay S. Rosenblatt.’…… These investigators put neck collars on pregnant rats to prevent them from licking themselves. It was found that the mammary glands of collared rats were about 50% less developed than those of control animals…’ Further research by Birch shows that ‘…when the female rat is fitted with a light collar that prevents self-licking of the abdomen…., such females make very poor mothers. They carry materials but fail to build regular nests…..They do not nurse their young to any extent…’
From this it would appear that touch during pregnancy not only positively affects all the bodily systems, but also ensures a positive outcome for the baby and mother in terms of mothering behaviours
Pregnancy can be a time of great emotional upheaval for a woman as they are more in touch with their feelings than in the non-pregnant state. Sensitivity is heightened and she may feel a lot more vulnerable. Things are changing in her life and she may be over run with many thoughts. . Some may struggle to accept their changing body shape as they have no control over it. Whether the pregnancy was planned or not the woman will undoubtedly have thoughts and feelings about the impact that a new little being will have in her life She may have worries about the future, hopes and expectations for the perfect child and perfect birth experience and fears of failure if these expectations are not fulfilled. She may carry the pain of unhealed trauma of previous birth experiences.
Every woman and every pregnancy is unique but for the majority it is an ‘emotionally charged ‘time. Pregnancy massage, delivered by a professional trained in this area offers a unique support and relaxation experience, providing tender, loving care in this time of transition. The therapeutic touch nurtures and conveys respect, acceptance and reassurance. A safe space is provided for the woman to off load her anxieties through the empathic listening of the therapist. As the body relaxes in response to the sensitive and skilled touch the woman is able to ‘let go’ of the stresses she has been carrying. Abdominal breathing and visualisation greatly enhance this process.
This support system is invaluable to the developing foetus also as research in Pre and Perinatal Psychology suggests that the baby feels and experiences what the mother experiences. “Time in the womb is not a free period for which there are no consequences for anything. The child is already forming it’s attitudes and it’s understanding of life from the stimulation that it receives in there”- that is according to Dr. David B.Chamberlain, who is the president of the association for Pre and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH)
In 1990, Dr. Van den Bergh, a Belgian clinical psychologist carried out a study of 70 women pregnant for the first time. By tracking the foetuses’ movements and heartbeats to see how they responded when their mother’s were under stress, she came to the conclusion that: “Maternal state anxiety…..was significantly correlated with foetal behaviour.”
Research conducted in 1992 by Dr. David Cheek, an obstetrician in San Francisco, observing 1,000 subjects under hypnosis, strongly suggests mothers and their unborn babies communicate without words.
There has been a lot of research done also by psychotherapists which suggests that there is continuity of behaviour between prenatal and postnatal life. Thomas Vernay, author of The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, claims that what happens in the womb and at birth will affect how the adult handle stressful situations in later life.
The findings of hypnotherapists suggest that the baby in the womb is like a recording machine and all the mother’s thoughts and feelings, even words, are recorded and imprinted in the baby’s psyche.
If all of this is true (and I have no reason to doubt the research), then one can see how important and worthwhile it is to support the mother in minimising stress and allaying anxieties. Conveying love, providing her with security and positive stimulus will have far reaching effects for her child in the womb and in it’s continuing life outside. I view this to be crucial considering the times in which we live, with so much chaos, fear and aggression. Never has there been a time more opportune than now to shower the new life with love, acceptance and a reverent respect. It is a birthright for all. This process can start with pregnancy massage as the mother-to-be is supported to get more in touch with her innermost self- her nurturing and creative self- and to foster deeper connection with and acceptance of her baby. This provides fertile ground for her off-spring to flourish.
As a pregnancy massage therapist I value the importance of physical contact for the father of the child also. He may be developing his own relationship with the baby in the womb, maybe by talking to it or stroking his partner’s abdomen. This is beautiful and should be encouraged. It is worthwhile to build upon this.
In a case study session demonstrating massage of the womb/abdomen to a father I found the father to be really ‘touched ‘ by the experience. Working with energetic connections, breathing, visualisation and massage there was a real sense of togetherness experienced, a sense of family. There was a threesome in energetic connection- mother, father and child. The father tapped into his intuitive abilities which I encouraged even further. This is an important quality to develop in a man at this time, helping him get more in touch with his feminine aspect There was lots of movement from the baby as the father massaged his partner’s abdomen and this was very rewarding for him. This contact is so important for the father.
The mother is physically (and psychically) connected to the baby in the womb at all times, so it is really important for the father to feel more involved through more consciously making physical connection. Feeling confident in massaging the abdomen helps him do this. Receiving instruction and guidance in this area is important as the father comes to realise the value of this work for his partner and baby. He then feels useful and this brings joy to all. He may then be encouraged to receive further instruction in massage that will support his partner in the labour and birthing process and thus give him a real significant and active role to play. He can use some of the techniques in abdominal massage, bringing calmness to the baby as he/she makes the transition to the world outside of the womb. The pregnancy massage therapist can be greatly instrumental in preparing the father to be that strong reassuring presence for both mother and baby at this crucial time.
In conclusion, pregnancy massage is truly holistic. Harnessing the power of meaningful, skilful touch, along with breathing and visualisation, the pregnant woman is taken on a journey of self discovery. It is a journey that can help her go inward and find forgotten aspects of herself. In the stillness, she is nurtured and cared for so that she in turn can nurture and care for her baby. She is mothered so that she can mother. As she plays her role in the act of creation, the therapist must too be creative, bringing all her gifts, knowledge and wisdom to the sessions with her client .Advice on nutrition and exercise is all so important to share with the pregnant woman so that she gets the support from ‘The Mother –Mother Earth’. Delivered with reverence and a gratitude for being in service, the pregnancy massage therapist can help the woman experience the words: “Blessed am I amongst women and blessed is the fruit of my womb”. Indeed the Polish language has an expression for being pregnant which translates as ‘Blessed State.’
- Shiatsu for Midwives- Suzanne Yates
- Songs from the Womb- Benig Mauger
- Touching, The Human Significance of the Skin- Ashley Montagu
- Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy- Carole Osborne-Sheets
- The Miraculous World of your Unborn Baby- Nikki Bradford
- The Secret Life of the Unborn Child- Thomas Vernay
- Pre and Perinatal Psychology Journal