Anyone who's ever had a professional massage knows that both body and mind feel better afterwards — and the same goes for prenatal massage, which can feel extra wonderful when extra weight and changes in posture stir up new aches and pains.
Here’s everything moms-to-be need to know about getting a massage during pregnancy.
What is a prenatal massage?
Prenatal massages are adapted for the anatomical changes you go through during pregnancy. In a traditional massage, you might spend half the time lying face-down on your stomach (which is not possible with a baby belly) and half the time facing up (a position that puts pressure on a major blood vessel that can disrupt blood flow to your baby and leave you feeling nauseous). But as your shape and posture changes, a trained massage therapist will make accommodations with special cushioning systems or holes that allow you to lie face down safely, while providing room for your growing belly and breasts. Or you might lie on your side with the support of pillows and cushions.
Can pregnant women get massages?
Prenatal massages are generally considered safe after the first trimester, as long as you get the green light from your practitioner and you let your massage therapist know you’re pregnant. But you’ll want to avoid massage during the first three months of pregnancy as it may trigger dizziness and add to morning sickness.
Despite myths you might have heard, there’s is no magic eject button that will accidentally disrupt your pregnancy, and there isn't much solid scientific proof that specific types of massage can have an effect one way or the other. Some massage therapists avoid certain pressure points, including the one between the anklebone and heel, because of concern that it may trigger contractions, but the evidence on whether massage actually can kickstart labor is inconclusive (to nonexistent).
It is a good idea to avoid having your tummy massaged, since pressure on that area when you're pregnant can make you uncomfortable.
If you are in the second half of your pregnancy (after the fourth month), don't lie on your back during your massage; the weight of your baby and uterus can compress blood vessels and reduce circulation to your placenta, creating more problems than any massage can cure.
And don’t expect deep tissue work on your legs during a prenatal massage. While gentle pressure is safe (and can feel heavenly!), pregnant women are particularly susceptible to blood clots, which deep massage work can dislodge. That, in turn, can be risky. On other body parts, the pressure can be firm and as deep or as gentle as you’d like. Always communicate with your therapist about what feels good — and if something starts to hurt.
Another thing to keep in mind: While any massage therapist can, theoretically, work on pregnant women, it’s best to go to a specialist who has a minimum of 16 hours of advanced training in maternal massage. (There’s no specific certification, so you should ask when you make your appointment.) This way, you can rest assured you’re in the hands of someone who knows exactly how to relieve any pain and pressure related to your changing anatomy.
Finally, always check with your practitioner before receiving a prenatal massage — particularly if you have diabetes, morning sickness, preeclampsia, high blood pressure, fever, a contagious virus, abdominal pain or bleeding — they’re complications that could make massage during pregnancy risky.
What are the benefits of prenatal massage?
Research shows that massage can reduce stress hormones in your body and relax and loosen your muscles. It can also increase blood flow, which is so important when you're pregnant, and keep your lymphatic system working at peak efficiency. And it reconnects your mind with your body, a connection that's comforting if you sometimes wonder if there’s a baby in there or if an alien has taken up residence inside of you.
During pregnancy, regular prenatal massages may not only help you relax, but may also relieve:
Neck and back pain
Swelling in your hands and feet (as long as that swelling isn't a result of preeclampsia)
Carpal tunnel pain
Headaches and sinus congestion
How much do prenatal massages cost?
Most insurance plans don’t cover prenatal massage, but some offer discounts — a good thing considering the cost of a prenatal massage session can cost between $90 and $150 or more for a 60- to 90-minute massage, depending on your location and the facility.
How to give a prenatal massage at home
Ask your partner or a friend to use these tips for an at-home maternal massage:
Gentle foot rub. Using lotion for smoother strokes, your partner can start by rubbing the top of the foot with gentle pressure, working from the toes towards the ankle and making small circles around the ankle. Then, have them use both thumbs to make small circles on the sole of the foot right beneath the toes. On the heel, they can move one thumb down as the other thumb moves up, and continue to alternate. They can also gently tug on each toe and use the index finger or thumb to rub between them. It's probably a good idea to avoid the pressure point between the anklebone and heel just in case.
Back rub. Sitting up or lying on your side, have your partner use both hands to stroke up and down the back, using lotion to help their hands glide. They should focus on the muscles on either side of the spine and can transition to kneading the muscles with their thumbs or base of the hand, moving up and down.
Shoulder rub. With the base of the hand or the pads of the fingertips, apply gentle pressure on one side of the neck and glide between the top of the shoulder and base of the skull. Repeat on the opposite side.
Scalp massage. Moving from the base of the skull to the hairline, use both hands and spread fingers to apply gentle pressure to the scalp, circling hands together or apart. Add gentle stroking of the face, which can be amazingly relaxing.
Belly. Don’t massage it! Instead, gently rub it with vitamin E oil for a soothing effect that can also help prevent stretch marks.
Another option? Try prenatal yoga on your own: The stretching and breathing can help you de-stress and unwind in a pinch!
-Catherine Donaldson Evans