Eighteen weeks into her pregnancy with her second child, Kristen Sykes was in a lot of pain. Her expanding uterus was putting pressure on her spine and sciatic nerve, and that caused serious discomfort and a numbness that ran down her legs. “By the time I’d get to work in the morning, I could punch myself in the leg and not even feel it,” says the mom from Bowmanville, Ont. “It would stay that way until I got home and went to bed, and the baby shifted.” She booked an appointment with a massage therapist as soon as she could.
Benefits of prenatal massage With so many physical changes taking place during pregnancy, lots of women turn to massage therapy to find some relief. “Many pregnant women will have various degrees of musculoskeletal pain from loosened joints,” says registered midwife Kathi Wilson of Thames Valley Midwives in London, Ont. “Back pain in particular is a big issue for a lot of women. Many will find massage is good at alleviating some of that pain.” Massage therapy can also help improve circulation, which may in turn reduce fluid buildup in the legs and feet.
Prenatal massage isn’t just for managing physical pain, though. Studies indicate it may increase levels of the “feel-good” hormones serotonin and dopamine, and decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “Massage therapy has many benefits for an expectant mother,” says Angela Parsons, a registered massage therapist and instructor at Humber College in Toronto. “It uses a lot of soothing and nurturing touch.”
Laura Murphy enjoyed the mental and emotional benefits of massage. “I had very comfortable pregnancies, so massage was more of a relaxation, feel-good thing for me,” explains the mom from Charlottetown, who welcomed her second baby in April. “I love the experience of having that time and treating myself.”
Is it safe? “There’s a misconception that you shouldn’t get a massage in your first trimester,” says Parsons. However, massage is safe throughout the whole pregnancy, she says, as long as mom-to-be and therapist are taking the right precautions. “A therapist might avoid treating the abdomen in the first trimester and will adjust her technique in further trimesters if the mom wants an abdominal massage. We would also try to limit pressure points around the ankles and sacrum area throughout pregnancy.” No need for a special massage table with a hole for your belly—side-lying with support is widely considered the ideal position.
Wilson recommends talking to your massage therapist about any allergies or sensitivities you may have to substances in massage oils to be used during your treatment. “Usually, when someone comes in for a massage treatment, they fill out a health history form with all of their background information, including injuries, medications or health conditions they have,” says Parsons. “We also gather information about the pregnancy so we know things are progressing well and there are no complications that would require certain techniques or positions to be avoided.” For example, a mom suffering from morning sickness might be placed on her left side to prevent increased nausea, and the therapist would refrain from techniques that rock her body. As with any therapeutic practice, it is best to consult your doctor or midwife before booking a massage treatment in order to discuss any precautions or concerns specific to your pregnancy.
Finding a registered massage therapist Ready to book a little me time on the massage table? The Canadian Massage Therapist Alliance website (crmta.ca) offers links to professional associations by province, making it easier to find a registered massage therapist (RMT) in your area who specializes in prenatal massage. “It’s important to ensure the RMT is knowledgeable and experienced with massage during pregnancy,” says Wilson. When selecting a massage therapist, ask questions about his or her training and experience with treating women during pregnancy. “Don’t be afraid to call or email the clinic and ask any questions you might have, which may include what equipment and positioning the therapist uses for treatment,” says Parsons. “Every massage therapist is going to approach treatment differently. It might take visiting a couple of therapists before you find the one that’s the right fit for you.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2016 issue with the headline, "TLC for moms-to-be," p. 55.