What’s the difference between a regular massage and prenatal massage? Learn how and when to try prenatal massage, plus how to safely get a foot massage.
When you’re looking for relief from sore muscles and swollen joints during pregnancy, there are plenty of ways to sneak a massage into your daily life: a quick foot massage from your partner, a DIY back massager, or even a professional prenatal massage.
What Is Prenatal Massage?
Many expectant mamas turn to massage therapy during pregnancy to soothe sore, achy muscles and relax before baby arrives.
A prenatal massage is very similar to a full body massage that you experience at the spa. The main difference is that the masseuse will make a few modifications to ensure the safety (and comfort) for mama and baby.
A massage therapist must be licensed to perform a prenatal massage, which includes being licensed by the state board and earning a certification in prenatal massage. (source)
The History of Prenatal Massage
Prenatal massages are not new. In fact, prenatal massage has a deep history rooted in many cultures around the world. Here’s a look at how prenatal massage has traditionally been used:
- Jamaica: Midwives in Jamaica traditionally used prenatal massage right until delivery. Depending on what stage of labor Mama was in, the midwives would preform different massage techniques. Toona leaves were often used to rub the belly, while olive oil and a warm wet compress was used on the belly during transition.
- Japan: Fun fact: Midwives in Japan are called “Sanba,” which literally means “elderly woman who massages.” Japanese sanbas are known for performing acupressure during pregnancy, as well as foot and leg messages while mama labors. (source)
- Mexico: Aztec midwives massaged a mama-to-be’s legs and believed that the tension in her legs indicated fetal position. This practice must have been handy when there were no ultrasounds! (source)
- Malaysia: Malaysian mothers massage their own navels with coconut oil. Why? It is believed to encourage the baby to lower into the proper position for birth. (source)
- England: Midwives in 17th century England massaged laboring moms with oil of lilies. (source)
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What’s the Difference Between a Regular Massage and a Prenatal Massage?
In order to make a massage safer and more comfortable for Mama, certain modifications will be made during a prenatal massage.
The biggest modification is Mama’s position during the massage.
Mama doesn’t lay on her stomach. Not only is that unsafe, it simply isn’t comfortable! In order to massage Mama’s back, the massage therapist will have Mama lay on her side and cradle a body pillow. The pillow will keep Mama comfortable, yet allow the masseuse access to Mama’s back.
Mama doesn’t lay flat on her back either. In order to avoid pressure on the vena cava, Mama will be semi-reclined with the use of pillows behind Mama, as well as under her knees.
Other modifications that take place include:
- Essentials oils contraindicated during pregnancy are avoided. For instance, clary sage should be avoided, as that oil can trigger contractions. Other essentials oils to be avoided include rosemary and cinnamon. Check with a certified aromatherapist if you’re ever unsure if an oil is safe during pregnancy.
- Certain areas will not be massaged. The abdomen, as well as any pressure points (around ankle, for example) that promote contractions or jump starts labor, are avoided during prenatal massages.
What Happens During a Prenatal Massage?
Are you anxiously awaiting your prenatal massage? This is what you can expect:
- You’ll enter the massage room and be surrounded by dim lights, tranquil music, and an overall peaceful environment.
- Your massage therapist will most likely have you begin laying on back, in a semi-reclined position (see video). You’ll spend about 1/3 of your allotted time in this position.
- Your masseuse may start with your neck and shoulders and head, then slowly move down to your arms and the tops of your legs. Expect gentle strokes, since deep tissue massages are not safe during pregnancy.
- Next, you’ll roll onto your side where you will be supported with pillows. This is where you’ll spend the bulk of your massage—about 2/3 of your allotted time.
- While in this position, your massage therapist will massage your back, neck, shoulders, legs, and feet with gentle strokes.
- Most prenatal massage last for 60 minutes, although some spas may offer a 90-minute massage.
Tip: If you have particular problem areas, let your masseuse know to spend extra time on certain areas. Alternatively, you may also request that certain areas be skipped.
Video Demonstration: How To Give a Prenatal Massage
Are Massages Safe During Early Pregnancy?
With all this talk about massaging and relaxing, you probably want to know when you can get a massage, right?
Technically, you can be massaged at any point during pregnancy, but you’ll find that most spas do not allow women in the first trimester to receive a massage.
Experts say it’s best to avoid massage in first trimester when miscarriage risk is highest. Why? For some women, massage can set off a detoxification process. During a detox, your body is basically doing a deep clean and getting rid of stored toxins. This is a problem for pregnant mamas, because some of those toxins may end up back in your blood and can potentially be passed to your developing baby.
If you live a clean lifestyle (one that is filled with healthy foods, adequate exercise, and devoid of smoking, drugs, and excessive drinking), this is not likely, and you are a good candidate for massage starting in the second trimester.
Note: Even if you do live a clean lifestyle, there may be circumstances in which you should not receive a massage. For instance, if you have placenta previa and are on bed rest, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get a prenatal massage. For this reason, many spas require a doctor or midwife’s note prior to your massage.
Always talk to your healthcare provider about what’s right for you.
Can a Massage Make You Have a Miscarriage?
Because so many massage therapists will not massage a woman during her first trimester, many mamas wonder if a prenatal massage can trigger a miscarriage.
There are no studies to suggest a direct correlation between massage and miscarriage.
In fact, most miscarriages are not caused by anything Mama did or didn’t do.
“Massage is not causative in a miscarriage.” — Elaine Stillerman, a licensed massage therapist (source)
Stillerman isn’t the only massage therapist who argues that massages are beneficial during pregnancy. Author Leslie Stager writes that, while deep abdominal massages are not safe during pregnancy, nurturing energy work and soothing, gentle massage can still be beneficial. (source)
When Should I Get a Prenatal Massage?
As you can see, there is some discrepancy about prenatal massage safety. But, the general consensus is that it’s best to wait until the second trimester to get a prenatal massage. If you were a heavy drinker, drug user or smoker prior to pregnancy, it may be best to avoid massage altogether to avoid any detox reaction.
Talk to your provider, who can make a recommendation based on your own personal history.
What Are the Benefits of Prenatal Massage?
You probably already know that a massage is simply oh-so-relaxing, but relaxation is not the only benefit of massage. In fact, there are many benefits:
- Reduces stress: Expectant moms have a lot on their minds: finances, health concerns, and the everyday stresses of pregnancy. According to an article published in Complementary Therapies in Nursing and Midwifery, massage therapy can reduce the physical symptoms of stress, such as tight muscles and increased pulse, in expecting mothers.
- Relieves joint pain and sore muscles: If you find your muscles and joints are sore, massage can help relieve joint pain by keeping your muscles more flexible. (source)
- Improves sleep: Many pregnant mamas find that increased worries and physical symptoms (e.g. sciatica, etc) make it hard to sleep at night. One study found that, when compared to a relaxation group, participants in the massage therapy group were able to sleep better at night.
- Reduces swelling: You might find yourself a little bit more swollen during pregnancy, but the good news is that massage can help reduce swelling. (source)
- Relieves headaches: Many women find that the hormonal shifts during pregnancy can lead to an increase in headaches. In addition to addressing any underlying cause of headaches (such as dehydration), massage therapy can significantly reduce headache frequency. (source)
- Alleviates heartburn: Pregnant mamas know the struggle that is pregnancy heartburn! Stillman says prenatal massage helps relieve heartburn by relaxing the nervous system and reducing stomach pressure. (source)
- Improves circulation: This has been one of the biggest benefits of massage for centuries, whether you are pregnant or not. By improving your circulation, your body is able to deliver more nutrients and oxygen to your baby. This is important, because the more nutrients and oxygen baby receives, the better they can grow and develop. (source)
- Stabilizes hormones: Prenatal massage reduces your stress hormone, cortisol, and increases endorphins, the feel-good hormones. (source)
- Improves nerve pain: According to a study published in Acupuncture in Medicine, massage relieves nerve pain. As the muscle is loosened, the muscle is less likely to press on the nerve and cause pain. (source)
- Makes delivery easier: A study published in the Expert Review of Obstetrics and Gynecology revealed that women who received a prenatal massage regularly had shorter labors (three hours shorter on average!) and less demand for pain medication. This is likely due to lowered stress levels. (source)
- Relieves lower back pain: As your center of gravity shifts during pregnancy, you might feel lower back pain. Sciatica and relaxed ligaments also contribute to lower back pain, but a prenatal massage can help improve these symptoms. (Source)
- Reduces risk of premature labor: One study noted that, in China, where prenatal massages and other forms of complementary medicine are regularly practiced, the rate of premature birth is only 1 percent (it is 14 percent in America!). Prenatal massage is thought to reduce your risk of premature labor, because it reduces cortisol levels. (source)
Thanks to an increase in the hormone relaxin and the additional weight that the feet must support, pregnant mamas experience tired and sore, swollen feet. In general, foot massages are safe and can be very beneficial in relieving these symptoms. There are, however, acupressure points that can stimulate labor on and near the feet, so it is important to see a massage therapist trained in prenatal foot massages.
But what if the dad-to-be wants to rub mama’s feet at home? Have him follow these tips:
Just a Reminder…
Growing a tiny human is hard work! Staying relaxed helps keep your mental and physical health in top shape—what else could be more important right now?! Receiving a prenatal massage is one of the best ways to stay relaxed and take care of yourself, as long as you take the proper precautions outlined above.
How About You?
Have you ever had a prenatal massage? How did it help you during your pregnancy?