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 Guttman, a Massachusetts-based, nationally certified and licensed massage therapist trained in pregnancy massage says that, "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

Studies by researchers at the Touch Research Institute (University of Miami School of Medicine) have found that labor pain can be reduced by massage therapy. Massaged women reported a decrease in depressed mood, anxiety, and pain and showed a more positive attitude following the first massage during labor. In addition, the massaged mothers had significantly shorter labors, a shorter hospital stay and less postpartum depression .

Betsy's Story

Betsy, a 41-year-old woman pregnant with her second child, receives 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 is much less problematic than last time. Massage helps her back pain and she sleeps better the night after a massage. She hasn't 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!" she 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 isn't for everyone at all stages of pregnancy. That's why it's important to use a specially trained massage therapist who is competent to perform pregnancy massage, and is aware of important limitations.

Claire Marie Miller, a nationally certified massage therapist, and Wanda Sundermann, a nationally certified massage therapist and certified doula (therapist trained for labor and delivery care), are instructors in the Nurturing The Mother certification program—a pregnancy massage training course. They say that 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.

Anyone with high blood pressure should first seek approval from her doctor. For women experiencing pre-term labor, massage can help improve circulation and relax them, but massage of the abdomen should be avoided. Pregnant women should not receive a massage if they have a fever.

In general, some swelling is normal in pregnancy, and massage can help relieve some of the discomfort. But 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.

Regular Massage Is Optimal

Miller and Sundermann recommend pregnancy massage on the same schedule a woman sees her doctor. But if you were a regular massage junkie before you became pregnant, more frequent visits may be fine. If your budget, schedule, and doctor approve, once a week would be ideal. If you're unaccustomed to massage or are in the first trimester, seek the advice of your doctor and a specially trained massage therapist to learn when to start.

Therapists trained in pregnancy massage often use a body cushion. It allows the expectant mother to lay face down while having her belly supported. This technique allows her back to get the attention it craves and also helps her take more deep breaths.

Infants Benefit, Too!

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 medical professionals often have a network that you can tap into.

Once 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?
  • How much massage experience do you have with pregnant women?
  • Have you had any special training in pregnancy massage?
  • Do you use a body cushion?
  • How will you handle positioning me as I progress in my pregnancy?

If the therapist cannot answer these questions to your satisfaction, move on until you find one that does.